WASHINGTON — The Samuel Alito who argued against abortion rights in 1985 was "an advocate seeking a job" with the conservative Reagan administration, the Alito who is now a Supreme Court nominee told Democrats Tuesday.
The current version "thinks he's a wiser person" with "a better grasp and understanding about constitutional rights and liberties," senators said as Alito tried to play down a 20-year-old document in which he asserted "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."
At the same time, some anti-abortion groups warned Alito not to go too far if he hopes to retain their support.
"A nominee who is willing to take the seemingly mandated Roe oath, whereby they testify that it is settled law, never to be overturned, is not the type of justice worthy of pro-life support," said Stephen G. Peroutka, chairman of the National Pro-Life Action Center.
President Bush nominated Alito last month as the replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has been a crucial swing vote on contentious issues including abortion during her 24-year high court career.
Alito was Bush's second choice after White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew under withering criticism from conservatives.
Liberals now are concerned that Alito and recently confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts would swing the Supreme Court to the right and perhaps overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established abortion rights.
Alito, who served for 15 years as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, worked Capitol Hill Tuesday following the release of his 1985 application to be deputy assistant attorney general.
In that document, the younger Alito touted his work in the solicitor general's office against abortion, work "in which I personally believe very strongly."
Republicans said there was nothing wrong with that.
"This man is a conservative," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. "He's been a conservative all his life, and in 1985 when he was applying for a job, he reiterated that fact in his application."
But the 55-year-old judge said Tuesday that things are different now, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said after meeting with him privately.
"He did indicate that he's an older person, that he's learned more, that he thinks he's a wiser person and he has a better grasp and understanding about constitutional rights and liberties," said Kennedy, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee that will question Alito at his confirmation hearing beginning Jan. 9.
The 1985 Alito was a young conservative lawyer hoping to advance, said Feinstein, also a member of the committee.
"He said, 'I was an advocate seeking a job; it was a political job and that was 1985. I'm now a judge, I've been on the circuit court for 15 years and it's very different. I'm not an advocate, I don't give heed to my personal views, what I do is interpret the law,' " Feinstein said.
Feinstein said she believes Alito is telling the truth, while Kennedy was a little more suspicious. Alito has told senators in his two weeks of private meetings that he has "great respect" for Roe v. Wade as a precedent, but he has not said he would vote to uphold it.
Alito said he wrote the memo as "a member of the Justice Department that was interested in getting a job," Kennedy said. "So I asked him, 'Why shouldn't we consider that the answers you're giving today are an application for another job?' "
Senators said that Alito can expect to be questioned carefully during his January confirmation hearings.
"He's obviously an intelligent and informed nominee, but the real criteria that all of us look for is whether the nominee is going to have a core commitment to the constitutional values and the rights and liberties and interest of the American people," Kennedy said.
Contributing: Erica Werner, Jeff McMurray, Jennifer Talhelm