WASHINGTON — The 14 centrists who averted a Senate breakdown over judicial nominees last spring are showing signs of splintering on President Bush's latest nominee for the Supreme Court.
That is weakening the hand of Democrats opposed to conservative judge Samuel Alito and enhancing his prospects for confirmation.
The unity of the seven Democrats and the seven Republicans in the "Gang of 14" was all that halted a major filibuster fight between GOP leader Bill Frist and Democratic leader Harry Reid earlier this year over Bush's lower court nominees.
The early defection of two of the group's Republicans, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, could hurt if Democrats decide to attempt a filibuster of Alito, the New Jersey jurist Bush nominated Monday to replace retiring Sandra Day O'Connor.
If Democrats do filibuster, Frist wants to change the Senate rules to eliminate the delaying tactic — something the centrist group blocked in May.
But a filibuster "based on a judicial philosophy difference, or an ideologically driven difference," Graham said Wednesday at a news conference. "I don't believe that, with all sincerity, I could let that happen."
DeWine also made clear Tuesday after meeting with the judge that he would vote to ban a Democratic filibuster. "It's hard for me to envision that anyone would think about filibustering this nominee," he said.
Graham said he would use the group's next meeting today to "inform them of my view."
The centrist Democrats plan to urge their GOP colleagues to withhold judgment, since Alito's nomination is not even officially at the Senate yet. The defection of even two members of the group — which decided earlier in the year to support filibusters only in "extraordinary circumstances" — would virtually ensure that Frist, R-Tenn., would win a showdown.
"The truth of the matter is that it's way too early to talk about extraordinary circumstances," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a founding member of the group. "I'm not hearing any of my colleagues talk about it, and I'd rather not hear any of my colleagues on the other side talk about it as well."
The loss of Graham and DeWine makes the "Gang of 14" less influential.
Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, and while confirmation requires a simple majority, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.
However, Frist needs only a simple majority — 51 votes — to eliminate the stalling tactic.
That means he needs two members of the centrist group to join the rest of the GOP to meet his goal. With a 50-vote tie in the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney would cast the tie-breaking vote for the Republicans and Alito could be confirmed with majority support.
Bush announced Alito's nomination after the nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers collapsed, undermined by conservatives.
The 55-year-old Alito — who has served for 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after being a government lawyer and U.S. attorney — got rave reviews from the Republicans he met Wednesday.
The Senate's No. 2 Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called Alito a "very, very impressive intellect and a very well qualified nominee." Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas added, "Unless something very different comes out that we don't know about, I certainly would intend to support him."
After a flurry of filibuster talk immediately following Alito's nomination, Senate Democrats now are taking a wait-and-see stance.
"I don't know a single Democrat who is saying that it's time for a filibuster, that we should really consider it," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, after meeting with Alito on Wednesday. "It's way too early."
Nelson said Alito had assured him "that he wants to go to the bench without a political agenda, that he is not bringing a hammer and chisel to hammer away and chisel away on existing law."
Durbin said the judge never refused to answer any of his questions — as Miers and John Roberts had during their private interviews — and that Alito told him he saw a right to privacy in the Constitution, one of the building blocks of the court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.
Alito said that when it came to his dissent on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a case in which the 3rd Circuit struck down a Pennsylvania law that included a provision requiring women seeking abortions to notify their spouses, that "he spent more time worrying over it and working on that dissent than any he had written as a judge," Durbin recounted.