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WASHINGTON – Capping an often rancorous and lengthy drama, Samuel Alito Jr. was confirmed Tuesday by the full Senate, 58-42, after a three-month battle that culminated in a failed filibuster and, finally, a near party-line vote. It was the narrowest victory for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee since 1991, when Clarence Thomas squeaked by with a four-vote margin. At 11:18 a.m., West Virginia Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd, supported by two canes, walked slowly through the Senate’s double doors into the now-crowded chamber to cast the final vote. Byrd was one of just four Democrats who voted for the 55-year-old jurist, along with South Dakota’s Sen. Tim Johnson, North Dakota’s Sen. Kent Conrad, and Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson. All four had previously announced their intention to support Alito. The only Republican to cross ranks was Rhode Island’s Sen. Lincoln Chafee, one of the chamber’s most moderate GOP members, who is in a close re-election campaign in a state that trends Democratic. “There is little left to be said,” commented Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in a moment of understatement just minutes before the 11 a.m. vote began. He added, “To President Bush, I say ‘Thank you.’” Alito, who will replace a key swing voter in retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, had been a judge on the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for the past 15 years. Tuesday’s vote clearly came as a relief to the Senate’s 55-member Republican majority, which dodged a Democratic-led attempt at a filibuster the previous day and repeatedly rejected the accusation from virtually every one of the chamber’s 44 Democrats that Alito would tilt the Supreme Court dangerously to the right. Earlier this month the 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee held a week of hearings, eventually endorsing Alito’s nomination in a straight party-line vote. Those hearings followed a long congressional holiday break, during which interest groups on both the right and left bombarded key states with television and print ad campaigns supporting or condemning Alito. Republican Party leaders wanted to make sure the full Senate vote took place ahead of President Bush’s annual State of the Union address Tuesday night. Alito was sworn in as the nation’s 110th justice at a ceremony at the Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a good day for the Senate. It’s a good day for the country,” intoned Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine at a post-confirmation news conference featuring nine GOP senators. DeWine is a member of the “Gang of 14″ – the seven Republican and seven Democratic senators who joined together last spring to declare that they would only support a judicial filibuster under so-called extraordinary circumstances. As DeWine noted, despite talk about such a maneuver, all of the Democratic members of the Gang of 14 voted to cut off debate during Monday’s filibuster attempt. Ultimately, only 25 Democrats voted to continue the debate, well shy of the 41 votes needed under Senate rules to block a cloture vote. “For the second time in a row it has worked,” said DeWine, referring to the gang’s pact and the Senate’s 78-22 confirmation vote of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. last year. “My hope,” added Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who is also a Judiciary Committee member, “is that the filibuster of judicial nominees is dead.” Monday’s filibuster attempt was led by Massachusetts’ two Democratic senators, John Kerry and Edward Kennedy. It was derided by Republicans as a transparent attempt to placate several influential liberal interest groups, which had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in their campaign to defeat Alito. “The reason the filibuster was a flop, if they had done it and been successful, there would have been a wipeout in 2006,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, reflecting a widely held belief among Republicans that a key factor in the 2004 defeat of former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was his party’s frequent use of judicial filibusters against conservative federal circuit court nominees. “The only thing that matters [to them] is the people driving the ads,” declared Graham, a member of the Judiciary Committee and the Gang of 14. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, had previously been a bit player in the long-running game of judicial nomination politics. But last week he took up the Alito filibuster cause with a vengeance. Asked what Monday’s failed filibuster accomplished, Kerry said it resulted in more votes against Alito on Tuesday. “Because we articulated the issues,” he said. “If you believe a guy shouldn’t be on the court, you use all the tools available,” he added on his way out of the Senate chamber. “It’s simply logic.” T.R. Goldman is a reporter with Legal Times , a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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