WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats turned up the heat on Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. yesterday, grilling him on his views on abortion and criticizing his membership in a conservative college alumni group.
The tough questioning sparked several testy exchanges with the nominee, as well as acrimony between members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. At one point, Alito's wife began crying and left the hearing room as a Republican senator defended the nominee against what the lawmaker said were unfair insinuations.
Alito sat placidly through it all, repeating without apparent irritation answers that did little to placate his critics. But support for Alito among Republicans, who control the Senate, remained solid, and the heightened Democratic attacks seemed aimed mainly at scoring political points within the party.
Unless Democrats in the full Senate mount a filibuster against him - which appears unlikely - Alito is expected to be confirmed, although narrowly.
Yesterday's disputes ranged from the lofty - such as the meaning of liberty - to the commonplace. At one point, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter squabbled with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, over a request for documents Kennedy said he had sent to Specter.
"I take umbrage at your telling me what I received," said Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. "I don't mind your telling me what you mailed. But there's a big difference between what's mailed and what's received."
The quarrel reflected much of the day's tenor and arose over whether the committee would demand access to records of a founder of Concerned Alumni of Princeton. Alito, a Princeton graduate, listed his membership in the now-defunct conservative group in job application as he sought a promotion in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration in 1985.
The group became controversial because some of its members publicly opposed Princeton's efforts to increase its numbers of women and minorities. They argued that such efforts could result in the admission of some students who did not meet the school's standards.
Alito, who had been quizzed about the group Tuesday, repeated yesterday that he could not remember why he joined it and said he did not take part in its activities or endorse the views that the other members expressed about female and minority students.
Questions about Alito's link to the group moved front and center yesterday in part because it appeared to crystallize for Democrats why they have trouble believing his assurances that he is not a conservative ideologue and that, as an associate justice, he would keep an open mind on politically controversial topics.
Kennedy displayed a series of placards quoting disparaging comments about minorities, gays and the disabled that members of the group wrote in the magazine it published. The senator asked Alito whether he endorsed such views.
"I've testified to everything that I can recall relating to this, and I do not recall knowing any of these things" about the organization, Alito said. "And many of the things that you've mentioned are things that I have always stood against."
Kennedy complained that, in his view, Alito's answers on the subject "don't add up." He asked Specter to subpoena the personal papers of one of the group's founders, which are at the Library of Congress.
Specter expressed surprise, saying this was the first time Kennedy had raised the issue of the documents with him - prompting the heated exchange over whether he had received Kennedy's letter.
Kennedy did not back down, saying that if his request was denied, "You're going to hear it again and again and again, and we're going to have votes of this committee again and again and again until we have a resolution."
Specter snapped back: "I'm not going to have you run this committee and decide when we're going to go into executive session."
In the end, the confrontation over the documents fizzled. During lunch, Senate staff members contacted the group's founder, William A. Rusher, who granted them permission to review the documents.
But the controversy over the group continued throughout the day.
"We understand what the 1985 application was all about," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters during a break in the hearing. "In this situation, Alito was trying to establish his credentials with the Reagan administration. He was providing red meat for the right wing."
Durbin pointed out that the only two membership organizations Alito mentioned in his application were the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization, and Concerned Alumni of Princeton.
"The fact that he picked those two organizations was no accident," Durbin said. "He understood that membership in those organizations carried meaning within the Reagan administration. He hoped that it would establish his credentials."
As the tone of Democrats' questions grew more caustic, Republicans tried to suggest they were acting from desperation.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, told Alito: "You're the quarterback, and your team is way ahead here. And opponents are very desperate, trying to sack you, and aren't doing a very good job of it. And they haven't hit you all day, now, for two days. "
The second focus of the senators' inquiry was abortion, with members poring over Alito's statements from the previous day in which he declined to say that the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision was "settled law."
"You do not agree that it is well settled in court?" asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
"I think that depends on what one means by the term 'well settled,'" responded Alito, who went on to discuss the importance of a judge reviewing all sides in a case.
Democrats complained that Alito's answers, while occasionally lengthy, have left them dissatisfied.
"A response is not an answer," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York. "You responded to more than 300 questions, but in all due respect, you haven't answered enough of them."
Alito's wife, Martha-Ann, broke into tears and left the hearing room as Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, discussed attacks that have been directed at Alito and offered his defense of the nominee.
The judge's advisers said Mrs. Alito composed herself before returning to the hearing.
"The pressure of all this and the insult added to injury just got to be too much," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.