Thu, Jan 12, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Alito plays it safe during questioning

NON-COMMITTAL In response to a grilling from US Democrats who are critical of the Bush nominee, Samuel Alito gave `non-comments' on wiretaps and abortion


US Democrats hoping that Samuel Alito will derail his own nomination are so far finding little ammunition in his comments. As President George W. Bush's pick for the Supreme Court entered his third day of the hearings yesterday, Alito was showing that he has mastered the language of politics: Say nothing -- at least nothing controversial.

The conservative Alito's by-the-book responses to the grilling by Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee has earned him nods of approval from Republican supporters.

But a leading Democratic opponent, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the second day of the hearings, complained that Alito was speaking in generalities to avoid answering questions.

"We are not asking him to take a certain position. We are asking him to take a position. It's that simple," New York Senator Charles Schumer said. "So far he has not."

Democrats are particularly worried because Alito, in replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate, could throw the balance of the nine-member court to the right. That potentially could undercut US women's right to abortion, first read into the Constitution in 1973, and broadly expand executive powers that many critics of the Bush administration believe the president has unconstitutionally usurped.

Alito has been careful to avoid fueling such fears.

Typical of his testimony: "There is nothing that is more important for our republic than the rule of law. No person in this country, no matter how high or powerful, is above the law, and no person in this country is beneath the law."

That was his response to a question from the committee's top Democrat, Senator Patrick Leahy, who asked whether the president could "override the laws and immunize illegal conduct."

Such responses did not sit well with Democrats.

"Americans have no better answers than they did at the outset of the hearings," said Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.

And when he does answer, it is "vague, inconsistent, and at times, contradictory testimony to what his record shows," Leahy added.

Many Democrats fear Alito would give the nine-justice Supreme Court the fifth and deciding vote to approve Bush's admitted use of warrantless electronic snooping within the US.

O'Connor, retiring after 25 years on the nation's highest court, has provided the fifth and deciding vote in 148 cases. Many of those involved contentious issues such as abortion and affirmative action, or preferences given to nonwhites to promote racial diversity in schools or employment.

Throughout hours of grilling by Democrats and less-stressful questioning by Republicans on Tuesday, the 55-year-old appellate judge repeatedly refused to speak in concrete terms on the ground that he should not air an opinion on a subject that might come before him.

Republicans complained that Democrats have already made up their minds about Alito.

"I do think that there are those who have already decided to vote against your nomination and are looking for some reason to do so," Republican Senator John Cornyn said. "And I think one of the reasons that they may claim is that you've been nonresponsive."

Despite the Democrats' frustration, Alito was to go into further hearings yesterday with a decreased likelihood that they may resort to the politically risky delaying technique of a filibuster to block his nomination.

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