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Watching the Alito Hearings: A Political Primer

All eyes in the nation's capital are on Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week, as it it widely believed Alito would swing the balance on the high court in a decidedly conservative direction.

But Alito is not the only one with something to prove in these hearings. Fully one-third of the senators who sit on the Judiciary Committee either face difficult reelection challenges in 2006 or have their eye on the White House in 2008. Each of these senators sees a unique role for himself in the proceedings; for some (like Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine) it is to assure Republicans that he is a strong defender of Bush's nominee, while for others (like Delaware Democratic Sen. Joe Biden) it it serve as a lead interrogator in order to bolster their liberal credentials.

Here's a primer on the larger political context of the Alito hearings:

* Delaware Sen. Joe Biden (D): Expect Biden to be among the most aggressive questioners of Alito. Remember that in 1987 Biden served as Judiciary Committee chairman during the confirmation hearing of Robert Bork.  Biden regularly parried with Bork, winning him plaudits among liberals and seemingly cementing his role as a frontrunner for the 1988 presidential nomination. Biden's presidential aspirations actually began to erode during those hearings, however, when a plagiarism scandal broke out. Biden finds himself in a similar spot 18 years later, and in his opening statement yesterday he invoked the Bork confirmation fight, noting that retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor "unlike, Judge Bork, did not think that being on the court would be an 'intellectual feast.'"

* Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R): One of the most conservative voices in the Senate, Brownback is expected to carry that banner both in the Alito hearings and on the presidential campaign trail in the next few years. Brownback seems likely to focus on his pet issue -- abortion -- and serve as a supportive voice for Alito, who is likely to take a battering from Democrats over several 1985 memos in which he presented a blueprint for eroding the legal foundation for Roe v. Wade. (It came up this morning already.)

* Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R): No senator on the Judiciary Committee faces as precarious a reelection situation as DeWine. With Republicans mired in scandal in Ohio -- thanks in large part to the problems of outgoing Gov. Bob Taft (R) -- Democrats believe that either Rep. Sherrod Brown or Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett can beat DeWine in the fall. DeWine has struggled somewhat to unite conservatives behind his reelection, in part because he was in the "Gang of 14", a group of senators that headed off a vote to change the chamber's rules on the filibustering of judicial nominees. DeWine must tread a careful line during the hearings; he must appease skeptical conservatives while also not alienating himself from the swing voters that will likely decide his fate in the 2006 election. In his opening statement, DeWine praised Alito for his "clarity and common sense," adding: "Your modest approach to judging seems to bode well for our democracy."

* Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D): Feingold, who has made no secret of his interest in a 2008 bid, is likely to focus on privacy issues in his questioning of Alito. The lone senator to vote against authorization of the Patriot Act in 2001 and the leading opponent to its reauthorization last month,  Feingold has been an outspoken critic of recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency's domestic spying program -- all of which have made him a hero to the liberal left. "Americans are understandably asking each other whether our government believes it is subject to the rule of law," said Feingold in his opening statement. "Now, more than ever, we need a strong and independent judicial branch." Remember, too, that Feingold voted to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts.

* Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (R): A reliably conservative voice, Kyl should be a reliable backer of Alito on most issues. In his opening statement, Kyl was effusive in his praise for Alito, saying that he "easily fit[s] into the mold of what this nation has come to expect from its Supreme Court justices: A first-rate intellect. Demonstrated academic excellence. A life of engagement with serious constitutional analysis. And a reputation for fair-mindedness and modesty."  While Kyl's support for Alito seems unquestioned, his words will be monitored carefully by Senate Democrats who believe they have a real chance of knocking off Kyl in November. Wealthy developer Jim Pederson is the likely Democratic nominee.

*New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D): As head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Schumer is likely to use the hearings to highlight some of Alito's positions -- especially on abortion -- that will stir up the liberal base. Schumer has proven a master fundraiser in his first year at the DSCC, and the more he can paint the Alito nomination as an extreme right-wing move by President Bush and the Republican Senate majority, the more compelling argument he can make to donors about working to put Democrats in the majority in November.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 10, 2006; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Politics and the Court  
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Comments

I wonder if Shumer will bring up things like credit checking candidates of the other party in these hearings, or if that part of "privacy" will be off limits.

http://crazypolitics.blogspot.com

Posted by: Crazy Politico | January 10, 2006 9:33 PM | Report abuse

Another waste of taxpayer money. Who do these buffoons think their kidding!

Posted by: Frank X. Kleshinski | January 10, 2006 3:23 PM | Report abuse

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