WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush nominated Judge Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court on Monday in a move that set up a showdown with Democrats but placated conservatives who bitterly rejected his last choice.
The new nomination came as Bush tries to make a course correction in his struggling presidency after a tough week in which a vice presidential aide was indicted and his first choice for a court vacancy, White House counsel Harriet Miers, withdrew due to a conservative backlash.
Democrats immediately expressed concern that Alito, a conservative in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia, would swing the balance of power toward the right in the highest U.S. court and put in jeopardy the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
Bush went out of his way to emphasize Alito's lengthy resume after his Oct. 3 choice of Miers angered conservatives who questioned her qualifications and intellectual heft. Alito, 55, is sometimes given the nickname "Scalito" -- a comparison to Scalia. He is a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
Bush said Alito had argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court, been an appeals court judge for 15 years, and "now has more prior judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in more than 70 years."
The New Jersey native of Italian descent would replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor if confirmed for the lifetime job by the U.S. Senate.
Democrats had wanted a moderate to replace her and vowed to give Alito careful scrutiny.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, wondered whether Alito was "too radical for the American people."
"I look forward to meeting Judge Alito and learning why those who want to pack the court with judicial activists are so much more enthusiastic about him than they were about Harriet Miers," Reid said.
Of particular concern to Democrats was a case in which he argued to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring women seeking an abortion to tell their husbands. The Supreme Court overturned the law but Alito's reasoning was mentioned in the high court's dissent.
"There's nothing in his dissent which suggests disagreement with the underlying decision of Roe V. Wade," Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania and supporter of abortion rights. Specter met with Alito for more than hour as the nominee quickly began making courtesy visits to senators.
"PUSH IT DANGEROUSLY TO THE RIGHT"
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy said: "Alito could very well fundamentally alter the balance of the court and push it dangerously to the right, placing at risk decades of American progress in safeguarding our fundamental rights and freedoms."
Liberal groups vowed to campaign against Alito, but conservative groups were pleased, and Republican senators who had been cool to Miers quickly embraced Alito.
"His credentials are superior," said Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott.
Whether Democrats would be able to successfully use the filibuster blocking tactic against Alito was unclear.
A group of 14 bipartisan senators that could hold the key to that tactic will meet on Thursday.
The so-called "gang of 14" reached a deal last spring that allowed some disputed Bush judicial nominees to move through the Senate, while also preserving the right of Democrats to filibuster under "extraordinary circumstances."
Two members of the 14, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, spoke highly of Alito, while Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor was more cautious, stressing the need for Alito to be fair and impartial.
Bush called for a vote on Alito by the end of the year, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said the timetable depended on getting Alito's paperwork to the Senate in time for a careful review of his record.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell)
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