Washington Judge Samuel Alito absorbed hours of criticism from Senate Democrats at close quarters Monday, then pledged at his confirmation hearings to do what the law requires "in every single case" if approved for the Supreme Court.
"A judge can't have any agenda, a judge can't have any preferred outcome in any particular case, and a judge certainly doesn't have a client," said Alito, the 55-year-old appeals judge who is President Bush's choice to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor for the swing seat on a divided high court.
Alito spoke after several Democrats on the Judiciary Committee made clear they intended to question him with unusual aggressiveness across the next few days about abortion, presidential powers in an age of terrorism, his personal credibility and more.
"In an era when the White House is abusing power, is excusing and authorizing torture and is spying on American citizens, I find Judge Alito's support for an all-powerful executive branch to be genuinely troubling," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
"You give the impression of being a meticulous legal navigator, but, in the end, you always seem to chart a rightward course," added Chuck Schumer of New York.
Republicans, with a majority on the committee and the Senate, offered Alito shelter.
"As of right now, there's no question that he's going to have my vote," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned Democrats against setting a precedent of filibustering Alito's nomination on the basis of abortion rights. If that became the standard, there are many senators who believe so deeply that "an abortion is certain death for an unborn child that they would stand on their feet forever," he said.
The atmosphere was different by several degrees from confirmation hearings last fall for Chief Justice John Roberts. He had originally been named to succeed O'Connor, but then Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, and Bush quickly made Roberts his choice for that post. That meant Roberts would be replacing one of the court's most reliable conservative votes on abortion and other issues.
Bush's next choice for the O'Connor vacancy, Harriet Miers, withdrew her nomination after coming under sustained criticism from conservatives who said they doubted her credentials on abortion.
Those two factors - plus the erosion in Bush's public support as measured in the polls - combined to make for a feistier Democratic presence in the committee room, and a more contentious opening day of hearings.
'More like indictments'
Alito began his day with breakfast at the White House. "Sam is a dignified person. And my hope, of course, is that the Senate brings dignity to the process and gives this man a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor," said the president before sending his court nominee off for his day in the witness chair.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman, opened the session by saying he hoped for "fair, full and dignified" proceedings.
By late afternoon, Specter said he was concerned that "so many senators are already in concrete without having heard from the nominee. That applies to a few of the senators on my side of the aisle but many more among the Democrats. ... A number of the opening statements by the Democrats sounded more like indictments than opening statements," he said.
Alito sat at a red-covered witness table, his wife, Martha-Ann, daughter Laura and son Philip as well as other relatives behind him for support. "When I had my confirmation hearing for the Court of Appeals, Philip was 3 years old. And when I was called up to the chair he took it upon himself to run up and sit next to me in case any hard questions came up," Alito said.
"I don't know whether he's going to try the same thing tomorrow, but probably I could use the help."
Alito was the central player in a confirmation drama with heavy political overtones. Even the portion of the room set aside for spectators reflected it - representatives of prominent conservative organizations supporting Alito seated on one side of the room, leaders of liberal groups trying to torpedo the nomination on the other.
Outside the room, advocates on both sides mounted the equivalent of political campaigns.
The Republican National Committee issued a steady stream of statements alleging "false statements" by Kennedy, Schumer and other Democrats - 18 such statements in all, by GOP count.
For their part, the judge's critics seized on a comment by RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, who suggested there was a connection between Alito's membership in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps while at Princeton, and his decision to join a conservative alumni association. Alito has said he did not recall the organization, the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, until he was preparing for his hearings.
"Will Alito stick by his answer under oath that he cannot remember anything about his membership in CAP? Or will he explain the sudden appearance of an excuse that attempts to wrap his membership in CAP in the flag and the military," said People for The American Way in a written statement.
Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, and GOP officials have said they are concerned about the possibility they will lose up to three votes from within the rank and file. Several Democrats are the subject of intense lobbying by activists on both sides of the nomination.
As a result, several strategists have said Alito is likely to win confirmation by a narrower margin than Roberts did. If Democrats decide to filibuster, that would force Republicans to post 60 votes to advance the nomination to a final vote.
If Democrats block them from that total, Republicans could, in turn, seek a parliamentary ruling outlawing such tactics, a maneuver known as the "nuclear option" that was narrowly averted last spring in a clash over appeals court nominees.