Alito hearings to begin second week of January, though Bush wanted earlier

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Republican-controlled Senate will begin hearings Jan. 9 on Judge Samuel Alito’s appointment to the Supreme Court, leaders of the Judiciary Committee announced Thursday, a bipartisan repudiation of President Bush’s call for a final confirmation vote before year’s end.


"It simply wasn’t possible to accommodate the schedule that the White House wanted," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman. He outlined a timetable that envisions five days of hearings, followed by a vote in committee on Jan. 17 and the full Senate on Jan. 20.


"It’s far more important to do it right than fast," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the committee. "In this case, I suspect we’re doing both."


While Bush had called for a confirmation by the end of the year, administration spokesman Steve Schmidt raised no objection to the schedule. He said the White House had "great confidence in Chairman Specter to manage the extremely complicated process of moving a nominee to the Supreme Court through the U.S. Senate."


Nor was there any evidence the scheduling decision signaled any deeper dissatisfaction among Republicans to the nomination. "I think Judge Alito has made a very good first impression," Specter said.


Bush nominated Alito on Monday to fill the seat of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has often held the swing vote on cases involving issues such as abortion and affirmative action. Already, some Democrats have raised the possibility of a filibuster – an attempt to prevent final action on the nomination – and Leahy stopped short of committing to a vote in the full Senate on Jan. 20.


Specter said that "lurking below the surface is a concern for a filibuster." He said pushing the start of hearings to January "takes away a principal argument for those who would say the Senate is rushing."


The decision gives committee aides additional time to review a voluminous record that Alito has compiled in 15 years as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 55-year-old judge has written an estimated 300 rulings and participated in roughly 1,500 cases.


Specter announced the date for hearings as Alito courted support in assembly-line fashion, using a room off the Senate floor as an impromptu office while lawmakers rotated through.


Conservatives eager to replace O’Connor and push the court to the right have swung behind Alito’s nomination. One sharply criticized the Jan. 9 date even though it has been only four days since Alito’s appointment was announced. "They need to stop stalling," said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council.


Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Pa., looks forward to starting 2006 "with an up or down vote to confirm Judge Alito," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff for the Tennessee Republican, in a statement.


Apart from the legal rulings to be reviewed, the National Archives said in a statement that its staff would need several weeks to complete a search of Justice Department records for any material pertaining to Alito. The agency also is seeking documents at the Ronald Reagan and George Bush presidential libraries that might shed light on Alito’s actions or views, the statement said.


Alito worked in both administrations and was a federal prosecutor in his home state of New Jersey before his confirmation as an appeals court judge.


Since Monday, Alito has met with more than a dozen senators in courtesy calls, a time-honored process that involves having the nominee walk from one office to another.


With lawmakers involved in a daylong series of votes that kept them in the Capitol, Alito was ushered into a room a few paces off the Senate floor so senators – John Cornyn, R-Texas; Trent Lott, R-Miss.; and Robert Bennett, R-Utah – could be brought to him.


A fourth Republican, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, talked with Alito on the steps outside the Capitol. A supporter of abortion rights, Chafee said he raised the issue with the nominee in their brief meeting. "We were able to have a candid conversation that I prefer to keep confidential," he said.


Like other senators, Chafee said he was withholding his judgment about the nomination until after the hearings. "As a horseman, I know the first step when you meet a horse is to take it easy, take it slow," he said.


Republicans have the ability to schedule hearings as they wish. Democrats have procedural rights under Senate rules that could prolong the hearings, delay sending the nomination to the floor or otherwise complicate the administration’s desire for a smooth confirmation.


Additionally, some Republicans noted that a vote in January – before Bush’s State of the Union address – could allow him to claim an early political success in the new year. They also said it could be politically risky to have Alito testify in December, then allow several weeks to elapse before a vote by the full Senate. That would allow liberal critics to mount a nationwide campaign for his rejection.