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Democrats Vow Tough Fight On Alito

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito said Monday that judges should operate free of any agenda or preferred outcomes as the Senate opened hearings on President Bush's choice for the high court.

"A judge can't have any agenda. A judge can't have a preferred outcome in any case," Alito told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a brief statement in which he made the distinction between judges and attorneys working for clients.

Alito's statement followed opening remarks from each of the committee's 18 members. Democrats promised they'd have tough questions for Alito on executive power, privacy rights and abortion. Several expressed misgivings about Alito's 15 years of decisions and opinions as an appellate judge and his writings during his tenure as a lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department.

"Your record raises troubling questions about whether you appreciate the checks and balances in our Constitution — the careful efforts of our Founding Fathers to protect us from a government or a president determined to seize too much power over our lives," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The hearings opened amid a growing debate over executive authority and President Bush's secret decision to order the National Security Agency to wiretap Americans in the terror war.

"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 Kennedy, D-Mass.

Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio offered a counterpoint. "Your modest approach to judging seems to bode well for our democracy," he said.

Republicans defended the president's pick to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, describing him as a fair-minded and brilliant jurist who would be a welcome addition to the court.

"Sam's got the intellect necessary to bring a lot of class to that court,"

in a good-luck sendoff for Alito at the White House.

Alito, said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, "has a reputation for being an exceptional and honest judge devoted to the rule of law, and a man of integrity."

Alito, 55, introduced members of his family — including his wife Martha, sister Rosemary and his son and daughter — and then sat and listened to the opening statements from committee members.

The Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee,

, promised "a full, fair and dignified hearing." He cautioned against partisanship, saying "hearings for a Supreme Court nominee should not have a political tilt for either Republicans or Democrats. They should, in substantive fact and in perception, be for all Americans."

Alito would replace O'Connor, a crucial swing vote on abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty since she joined the Supreme Court in 1981.

"Her legacy is one of fairness that I want to see preserved," said

of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat.

Alito, a judge on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was chosen by Mr. Bush on Oct. 31. A graduate of Princeton and Yale Law School, Alito served as a prosecutor in New Jersey and a lawyer in the Reagan administration.

"My hope of course is that the Senate bring dignity to the process and give this man a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor," Mr. Bush said before Monday's hearing. He added: "Sam, good luck to you."

Ten-minute opening statements by the Judiciary Committee's 18 members were likely to consume much of the opening session, with direct questioning of Alito getting fully under way Tuesday. The hearings were expected to last at least two days.

Specter, R-Pa., said he expected to wrap up the hearings this week and has called for a committee vote by Jan. 17.

says Alito needs to avoid being "defensive and argumentative." If Alito talks and acts like a partisan ideologue, says Cohen, the mood in the Senate could shift away from an easy confirmation of the Supreme Court nomination.

"Judge Alito has the votes to be confirmed — just do the math — and the only person who can stop his ascension is the judge himself," Cohen says, predicting that Alito will get fewer votes than the 78 that went to confirm John Roberts but will still be confirmed with about 60 votes.