At the outset of a floor debate seen mostly as the placement of Campaign 2006 markers by Democrats and Republicans, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., lauded Alito as "exceptionally qualified" to become the nation's 110th justice.
Alito already has enough announced Republican votes to win confirmation, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss, but almost all the Democrats will be voting against him. They don't doubt Alito's abilities as a judge but they worry about his views, arguing he will dramatically shift the balance on the Supreme Court on issues such as abortion, discrimination and civil liberties.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its approval to Alito's nomination on a party-line vote, with all 10 committee Republicans voting for the 55-year-old federal judge and all eight Democrats voting against him.
The Senate is likely to follow the same partisan pattern when it takes its final confirmation vote, possibly by the end of the week. Only one Democrat — Ben Nelson of Nebraska — has come out so far in support of Alito. Republicans hold the balance of power in the Senate, 55-44 with one independent.
"I support Judge Alito because he has a record that demonstrates a respect for judicial restraint and aversion to political agendas on the bench and a commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution," said Frist. "There is no question that Judge Alito is well-qualified."
Republicans want to get Alito on the Supreme Court before Bush's State of the Union speech Jan. 31, but they have not yet reached an agreement with Democrats on when a final vote will occur.
Democrats argued that putting Alito on the court in the place of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was a swing vote on many contentious social issues, would put people's rights and liberties in danger. Issues such as the Bush administration's treatment of terrorism suspects and its domestic spying program are likely to come before the court.
"I'm concerned that if we confirm him, this nominee will further erode the checks and balances that protected our constitutional rights for more than 200 years," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "It's not overstating the case to say that this is a critical nomination. It's one that can tip the balance of Supreme Court radically away from constitutional check and balances and the protection of Americans' fundamental rights."
Added Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts: "The record demonstrates that we cannot count on Judge Alito to blow the whistle when the president is out of bounds. He is a long-standing advocate for expanding executive power, even at the expense of core individual liberties."
But Frist said the judge's Democratic opponents are "smearing a decent and honorable man in imposing an unfair political standard on all judicial nominees."
For all their statements of vehement opposition, Democrats did not seem ready to attempt a filibuster — a delaying tactic that would prevent Alito's nomination from coming to an up-or-down vote.
Four Republicans, 23 Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont were still publicly undecided Wednesday or refused to say how they would vote on Alito's nomination. The nominee was meeting with two of the undecided Democrats, Sens. Patty Murray and Jay Rockefeller, in hopes of gaining their votes.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., an abortion rights moderate, said part of the reasoning for his vote for Alito was to ensure the judge's support crosses ideological lines when it comes to abortion.
"I think it is important for Judge Alito have supporters who favor a woman's right to choose, so that he does not feel in any way beholden to or confirmed by people who have one idea on some of these questions," said Specter, who has been criticized by abortion rights supporters for his Alito support.
With Alito's ultimate confirmation assured, both Republicans and Democrats were preparing to use him as a campaign issue. Republicans said the Democratic filibuster of lower-court judges helped them defeat the re-election bid of former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota two years ago.
Twenty Democrats already have publicly opposed Alito's nomination. All of the eight Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against him Tuesday, leading to a 10-8 party-line vote for the 55-year-old judge from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The only way Democrats could stop Alito is through the filibuster, a maneuver they show little interest in trying.