The Dems' Unhappy Return

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When the Senate returns in earnest to Capitol Hill this week after a nearly month long break, Senate minority leader Harry Reid has high hopes to build on last year's Democratic successes—which included blocking President Bush's Social Security reform plan, his proposed extension of capital gains and dividend tax cuts and his long sought-after approval of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And with the Abramoff scandal gaining steam, Reid had a seemingly perfect backdrop for last week's rollout of the Democrat's election year theme—the "Republican culture of corruption".

But scoring political points the week before Bush's State of the Union address won't be nearly as easy as the Dems would like. Americans still hold Democrats nearly equally responsible for corruption in the capital, and at least a handful of Democrats are themselves implicated in the alleged quid pro quo deals that were Abramoff's confessed specialty. Reid himself took campaign money from Indian tribal clients of Abramoff just days before signing a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton urging blockage of a casino those same clients viewed as a competitor, a move which undercut the letter Reid sent to President Bush last week arguing that Abramoff "may have had undue and improper influence within your Administration."

Reid's biggest challenge, though, comes from the timing of the vote on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, who is widely expected to cruise to confirmation over increasingly impotent Democratic resistance. Republican Senators will take the floor this week citing a wide range of bipartisan Alito supporters from academia, the judiciary and the executive branch. And far from winning over moderate Republicans, Democrats seem to be losing their own centrists. Democratic leadership aides say they expect Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bill Nelson of Florida to vote for Alito, joined by Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Blanche Lincoln of Nebraska is on the fence, and the betting is that anywhere from 5 to 10 Democrats will abandon ship and vote with the Republicans. While not as dramatic a Republican win as the 78-22 blowout in favor of Chief Justice John Roberts last fall, the Alito vote won't be the squeaker Democrats were predicting during his hearings earlier this month.

Still, with liberal activists watching and November's midterm elections looming, Democrats won't go down without some fighting words. Instead of the largely ineffectual approach they took in Alito's Judiciary Committee hearings—where they leveled oblique accusations of bigotry and questionable legal ethics—Dems are expected to focus more intently on the fact that Alito will shift the court to the right. After Chief Justice John Roberts joined Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in a minority dissent in last week's decision upholding Oregon's right to enact a law legalizing doctor assisted suicide, court watchers now believe Roberts will be every bit as conservative as his predecessor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Which means Alito's replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has the potential to move the court dramatically to the right. Unfortunately for Democrats, the argument that Bush would soon move the Supreme Court in that direction didn't help them in the 2004 election, and it isn't likely to help them much now either.