WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush, reeling from an array of political troubles, patched up a rift with conservatives by nominating Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court on Monday but set up a bruising battle with Democrats over the court's future.
The choice of the conservative Alito drew quick praise from the right and condemnation from the left, which said a weakened Bush had placed a higher priority on healing a divided Republican Party than on uniting the country behind a consensus nominee.
"This is a needlessly provocative nomination," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that will consider Alito's nomination.
"Instead of uniting the country through his choice, the president has chosen to reward one faction of his party at the risk of dividing the country," Leahy said.
The nomination raised the possibility of an effort to filibuster, or block, Alito by Senate Democrats, who said his confirmation could put at risk the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
But analysts said Bush apparently decided that even a blistering political fight that could sideline his legislative agenda was a welcome alternative given his weakened stature and mounting troubles.
The nomination followed months of bad news and declining poll ratings for Bush, capped last week by the withdrawal of his previous nominee, Harriet Miers, and the indictment of a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney in an investigation into the leak of the name of a CIA operative.
'POLITICS AS USUAL'
"A partisan battle in the Senate is politics as usual, and he won't suffer nearly as much from that as he's suffering now from all the talk about corruption and Republicans jumping off the ship. This is the easiest thing to do," said Stephen Wayne, a professor at Georgetown University.
Alito would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a swing vote on the divided nine-member court whose decision to step down has given conservatives a long-awaited chance to shift the court to the right on social issues like abortion.
Strong conservative opposition to Miers, Bush's first nominee for the seat, forced her to withdraw last week and left Bush estranged from the conservative allies at the heart of his administration.
But the choice of Alito quickly won back conservatives who said Bush had finally fulfilled his campaign pledge to nominate a judge in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court's two most conservative members.
"The president has kept his commitment to appoint an individual who will faithfully interpret the Constitution," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.
But Democrats and liberal interest groups were alarmed by Alito's 1991 decision as a federal judge to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring women seeking abortions to notify their spouses.
That case went to the Supreme Court, where justices overturned Alito and reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade that women have a basic constitutional right to abortion. O'Connor co-authored the majority decision.
"If confirmed, 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," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Judiciary Committee.
The nomination fight will place renewed attention on the Senate's so-called "Gang of 14," the bipartisan group of 14 centrist senators who hatched an agreement in May that cleared the way for votes on some of Bush's judicial nominees who had been stalled by a Democratic filibuster.
That agreement preserved the Democrats' right to block future nominees under "extraordinary circumstances," leaving open the question of whether the filibuster would be used or whether Republicans would vote to change Senate rules and eliminate the minority party's right to a filibuster.
Did you find this article insightful?