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There are 18 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and, at times, they can be some of the most ornery, bombastic, and self-important members in the entire Congress. And that’s on a good day. Last week’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr. revealed the committee in all its glory: It was a stylized set piece in which all 10 Republicans and eight Democrats played largely pre-programmed roles. And it made for a week of high-mindedness and low comedy — or maybe it was the other way around. Hatch Act: For instance, there was Orrin Hatch, the Great Rehabilitator, and his junior colleague first-term Texan John Cornyn, who was trying awfully hard to be a Great Rehabilitator, too.
Click above for more coverage on the Alito Nomination, including links to a live video feed and audio highlights from the hearings.

But Cornyn’s no match for Hatch. After 29 years in the Senate, Utah Republican Hatch remains as prim and schoolmarmish as ever, a mother hen with a highly refined taste in neckwear. The former Judiciary Committee chairman still prides himself on defending beleaguered witnesses unmercifully slandered by rude and repetitious Democrats. For example, on the second day of the hearings, just as the controversy over Alito’s membership in a Princeton alumni group was about to crescendo, Hatch began his 30 minutes by trying to defuse comments by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who the day before had noted that the group, the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, had publicly bemoaned the increasing number of women and minorities at the university. “Some have suggested, as my friend from Massachusetts did yesterday, that by your membership in this organization, you were somehow against the rights of women and minorities attending colleges. So let me just ask you directly, on the record, are you against women and minorities attending colleges?” Replied a grateful Alito: “Absolutely not, Senator. No.” Said Hatch in response, to general laughter all around: “You know, I felt that that would be your answer. I really did.” Cornyn, more than any other senator save Virginia’s John Warner (R), looks like he was genetically engineered for the job. Tall with a full head of white hair, he and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) typically share the blue ribbon for hours logged in front of a television microphone. Sound and Fury: Flanking Cornyn was the GOP’s Southern contingent, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, two short men with thick accents and wide smiles. Both take the art of folksiness to new heights, although Graham often adds a dose of self-deprecation. How much of Graham’s act is real — or just an effort to be a junior John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate’s most distinguished rebel — is an open question among even his fans. “Welcome back, Judge,” Graham said to Alito during the hearings’ first day. “I’d hate for you to miss my opening statement,” he said, deftly pausing for laughter. “It would be a loss for the ages.” Noted one Judiciary Committee staffer: “These guys are performers, and the Alito hearing is a chance to perform.” How else to explain the astonishing figures compiled by the Republican Judiciary Committee staff, which showed that most members spoke far more during their allotted time than did Alito. On the third day of the hearings, when members were allotted 20 minutes apiece, Cornyn spoke for 18 minutes and 44 seconds, while Alito spoke for one minute and 58 seconds. Graham spoke for 15 minutes and 37 seconds; Alito for one minute and 46 seconds. “It is a natural senatorial disease,” commented Sessions during a break in the hearings, admitting that he too had been infected.

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Democrats are by no means immune to speechifying, either, which probably explains the general lack of follow-up questions to Alito. This despite the fact that both parties never tire of noting that a Supreme Court confirmation hearing is the most important senatorial duty short of voting on a declaration of war. Delaware’s Joe Biden is the acknowledged lead bloviator among committee Democrats, weighing in on the first day of questioning, in which each senator was allotted 30 minutes, with a rambling, 24-minute discourse. Of course, as his defenders note, confirmation hearings are nothing new for Biden, who was elected to the Senate in 1972 and who has now spent more than half his life in the job. Biden’s oratory, moreover, was far less harsh than his performance during the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. “It’s like he realized between now and then, he wasn’t going to be running for president, so he doesn’t have to worry about his national base, just Delaware,” noted one committee staffer. The Sunshine Boys: Democrats clearly have the edge when it comes to experience: Its three senior members, Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Kennedy, and Biden, have served a combined 107 years; the three top Republicans, Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.), Hatch, and Iowa’s Charles Grassley, have only 79 years among them. Leahy, the ranking Democrat, generally gets along well with Specter, and far better than he did with Hatch, who ran the committee — with one 18-month exception — from 1995 to 2005. Indeed, Specter gets high marks from almost everyone for the committee’s newfound productivity. And while the relationship between the chairman and Leahy took a dive in December, during some very contentious negotiations over the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, the two still play off each other, sounding at times like an old vaudeville duo. “The chairman was disturbed by my snoring over here,” Leahy noted late one afternoon last week after what seemed to be another interminable round of interrogations of Alito over his failure to recuse himself in a case involving Vanguard mutual funds, some of which he owned. In fact, if anyone can make a claim to the self-effacing schtick of a Borscht Belt comedian, it is Specter, the 75-year-old chairman who nearly lost the job after making a clumsy remark on abortion a few weeks before he was to take over the committee. “And I do piecework, so I’m here for the duration,” he said around 6 p.m. last Wednesday, when he was trying to figure out how many more days the confirmation hearings would continue. The allusion was most likely to Specter’s Eastern European Jewish background and the fact that when many Eastern European Jews arrived in America, their first jobs were in the textile industry, where they were paid per piece of clothing they produced. Last Thursday, Specter tried to explain why the committee was breaking for a closed executive session, a standard procedure in judicial confirmations. “I’m not quite sure why we do it,” he said, “but we do it. And it doesn’t take long if you do it before lunch.” Specter’s humor may be as dry as the two martinis he drinks each night. But there’s little levity in his approach to running the committee. He is almost neurotically punctual, and insists that members stay strictly within their allotted time. Bird Flew: There was, at times, an almost fantastical quality to the Judiciary Committee last week. Witness the interrogations of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who questioned with such dogged intensity that his eyes shone. In part, that’s because Alito was a supremely frustrating witness, at least from the Democrats’ point of view. It seemed his 15 years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit had taken a naturally judicious temperament and flattened it out even more, so that all anyone heard from the witness table was a dull and steady monotone. For the senators, it was like trying to wrestle a greased pig. Alito’s Teflon nature forced the senators into a higher rhetorical gear than usual — and most Republicans fell victim, as well. On the second day of questioning last week, Cornyn suddenly began talking about the Holocaust and whether turkeys feel pain. Cornyn was reading from a three-year-old Los Angeles Times op-ed by Steven Dujack, which compared the slaughter of animals to victims of the Holocaust. Why did Cornyn have to inflict the graphic details of the Dujack piece on everyone in the room and the national audience? To prove, he explained, the desperation of the Democrats, who had previously scheduled Dujack as an anti-Alito witness but pulled him after they discovered the op-ed piece. Cornyn wasn’t alone. Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican, physician, and ardent abortion rights opponent, entered into the record what only Coburn could assume is a standard submission for a Supreme Court confirmation hearing: a longitudinal study of 600 New Zealand women whose health was tracked for 35 years after they had an abortion. Specter duly entered the study, along with three other abortion-related documents from Coburn, into the record. “It’s amazing what we don’t know,” Coburn told committee members — and without any vestige of irony. And finally, there was, of course, Kennedy, the liberal icon, the fixture. Heavyset, white-maned, and stooped, he still roars like a lion, but when he roars now, it’s not entirely clear who’s listening. True to form, he battered Alito with questions about his Vanguard holdings. In the process, Kennedy pressed Alito to simply admit that he had made a mistake, with Kennedy using his own checkered past as an example. “We’ve all made mistakes,” Kennedy said. “I’ve certainly made more than my share.” It wasn’t the note upon which the week ended. That would have been too perfect a description of a process marked more by posturing and politics than penetrating revelations. And last week, little was perfect.


T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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