In Washington, The Senate Judiciary Committee begins a week of hearings Monday on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Appeals Court Judge Alito is expected to face tough questions, dealing with a range of issues, from presidential war powers and abortion rights to civil liberties and the death penalty.
If confirmed, Judge Alito, a political conservative, would succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a centrist, who often cast the deciding vote in five-to-four decisions in controversial cases on the closely divided court. So, critics fear he could shift the high court's ideological balance.
Many Democrats are concerned Judge Alito may try to overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case, known as Roe versus Wade, which legalized abortion. They cite a 1985 memo he wrote in an application for a job with the Reagan administration, in which he said the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, addressed the issue on Fox News Sunday. "My question is, are his views, let's say, on abortion, the same as they were in 1985, when he wrote in an application that the Constitution does not protect a woman's rights in this area?" she said. "Now, if that is true, and he still holds to that, this will make him a very difficult nominee for many of us."
But the Republican chairman of the committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, says Judge Alito assured him during meetings late last year that his personal views on abortion would not affect his legal decisions.
A key question for Senator Specter will be the judge's views on the recent disclosure that President Bush ordered, without warrants, spying on Americans with suspected terrorist ties. He spoke on CBS's Face the Nation.
"You have what appears to be a conflict between the president's claim of executive war powers to eavesdrop, without a warrant, and a conflict with what the Congress has done on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," he said. "I think it is a fair inquiry, and I intend to press the question with Judge Alito as to how he would approach these issues on a jurisprudential [basis]."
Senator Specter says he plans to hold hearings on the domestic surveillance program in early February.
Supporters of Judge Alito say he is a mainstream conservative, who is well-qualified to serve on the high court. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, spoke on Fox News Sunday. "He is the most qualified person to be nominated to the Supreme Court in 70 years, in terms of judicial experience," he said.
The hearings begin with opening statements from all 18 members of the Judiciary Committee, followed by Judge Alito's opening statement.
Senators will begin at least two days of questioning of the nominee on Tuesday. Later in the week, about 30 witnesses will testify for or against the nomination. The committee is tentatively scheduled to vote to send the nomination to the full Senate on January 17.
Despite likely opposition from Democrats, Judge Alito is expected to be confirmed by the full, Republican-led Senate by the end of the month.