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Alito completes testimony; split remains

Committee Democrats giving no indication how they'll vote

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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Judge Samuel Alito answers a question Thursday at his Senate confirmation hearing.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With four days of sometimes-contentious hearings behind Samuel Alito, only two Senate votes lie between him and a seat on the Supreme Court.

The timing of those votes -- one by the Senate Judiciary Committee and another by the full Senate -- remains uncertain.

The 55-year-old federal appeals court judge dodged any real political pitfalls during the 18 hours of questioning this week. Republicans on the committee praised Alito's judicial record and poise, while Democrats complained his answers were evasive and incomplete.

President Bush took time to give kudos to the nominee, calling Alito from Air Force One on Thursday.

"Proud of the way you handled it," Bush told Alito during the phone conversation. "Showed great class."

But the top Democrat on the committee said he had not yet decided how to vote, saying he had reservations about Alito.

"I continue to be worried -- and I pressed the questions again today, as I have all week long," Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont told reporters. "He is not clear that he would serve to protect America's fundamental rights."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, told Alito that the panel had heard evidence, including views expressed in his judicial record, that made it difficult to vote for his nomination.

"Unfortunately, by refusing to confront our questions directly and by giving us responses that really don't illuminate how you really think, as opposed to real answers, many of us have no choice but to conclude that you still embrace those views completely or in large part and would continue in a similar fashion on the Supreme Court," Schumer said.

Throughout three days of testimony that included about 700 questions for the nominee, Alito handled persistent Democratic queries about his 15-year record as a judge and earlier service as a government attorney.

Alito repeatedly pledged his support for judicial precedent, but refused to say that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion was "settled law."

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to speak about issues that could realistically come up" before the high court, he repeated.

Alito has finished testifying. The hearings were scheduled to conclude Friday with testimony from more of the nominee's supporters and opponents.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, has said he hopes the panel could vote on Alito's confirmation next week and that the full Senate could vote the following week.

But Democrats have signaled they may request a one-week delay, as Senate rules allow.

Alito has likely secured the votes of all 10 GOP members of the committee, but the eight Democrats on the committee have not indicated which way they will vote.

At least one Republican committee member said the confirmation vote in the full Senate would be close.

"I think there may well be a strict party-line vote," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters.

The GOP controls 55 seats in the Senate, meaning Alito would be confirmed unless some Republicans vote no or Democrats block a full Senate vote through parliamentary procedure.

Confident Republicans and CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said a filibuster is unlikely.

"The point is the key to this was whether or not there was enough critical mass established during these hearings to trigger not only a filibuster but ... that so-called nuclear option," Toobin said, referring to a move to prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees.

"I'm pretty sure -- I could always call for one order of crow -- but I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen."

Name not in group's papers

Thursday's session began with Specter announcing that Alito's name was not on any documents reviewed from a controversial Princeton alumni group that criticized admitting more women and minorities to his alma mater.

Specter said that staffers reviewed four boxes of documents Wednesday night from a leader of Concerned Alumni of Princeton, or CAP, and that Alito's name was not mentioned in any of the papers.

Alito listed his membership in the group on a 1985 job application.

"The files contain minutes and attendance records from CAP meetings in 1983 and 1984, just before Samuel Alito listed the organization on his job application, but Samuel Alito did not attend any of those meetings, at least according to those records," Specter said. "He's not even mentioned in the minutes."

Alito has testified that he doesn't recall joining and has strongly denounced the group's purported support for admission restrictions on women and minorities. Princeton began admitting women when he was an undergraduate, a move he said he always supported.

"It's no wonder Sam Alito cannot remember much about his affiliation with the group," Specter said. "CAP's records prove that any such affiliation was minimal."

During Wednesday's questioning, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, criticized Alito's membership in the group and wanted the committee to subpoena its records, which are kept in the Library of Congress, leading to a testy exchange with Specter. (Watch as the nomination hearing gets heated -- 3:31)

Right-to-die cases

At Thursday's hearing, Alito said that he supports broadening the rights of family members in cases where the right to die is at issue.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the headline-grabbing case of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain damaged woman who died after her feeding tube was removed. Her husband had authorized the tube's removal; her parents had opposed it.

The dispute centered on whether Schiavo would have agreed with her husband's decision to have the tube removed.

Alito agreed a person with a living will had the right to name a family member to decide whether to use extraordinary measures to keep that person alive.

"That's an extension of the traditional right that I was talking about that existed under common law, and it's been developed by state legislatures, and in some instances, state courts to deal with the living will situation," he said.

The nominee predicted more courts will be forced to deal with the issue as medical technology develops and the use of living wills increases.

Vanguard matter raised again

Also Thursday, Kennedy again asked Alito about a 2002 ruling for a mutual funds company in which the judge had investments.

Alito said he had not violated any ethical standards but admitted an "oversight" for failing to put the investment company, Vanguard, on a formal recusal list. He later withdrew from the case when questions of conflict of interest were raised.

Kennedy said Alito had changed his story several times. "You failed to give us any plausible explanation" on the matter, the senator said.

Alito was not sanctioned, and the American Bar Association found no wrongdoing. Legal ethicists have split on whether there was any technical violation of judicial conduct laws.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, "Now, what is going on here is nothing but an attempt to make a big deal about nothing, a small thing. And I think it's being done with a bit of old bait-and-switch, if you ask my opinion. "

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