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WASHINGTON (AP) -- As some Democrats were considering whether to block President Bush's latest Supreme Court nominee, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said he believes the Senate must vote on Samuel Alito by the end of the year.
And if Democrats try to filibuster, "we would have no choice other than the constitutional option" to force a vote, said Hatch, the second-highest ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Hatch met with Alito on Tuesday. It was the senator's third such conference this year -- and his second in a month -- as Bush attempts to fill the position being vacated by retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Bush's previous nominee, White House counsel Harriet Miers, bowed out last month after enduring criticism from the right. An earlier nominee, John Roberts, succeeded the late William Rehnquist and is now chief justice.
This time, Democrats are criticizing Alito, a judge for 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, and asking whether he is too conservative.
Hatch described Alito as "fair, decent and honorable" and potentially a unifying force.
"You'll all like him I'm sure," Hatch told a group of reporters. "I see this nominee as somebody who persons of all political persuasions can support."
"Most Democrats are holding their fire" until they learn more about Alito, Hatch added.
Hatch also joined other Republicans in cautioning those who would criticize Alito's positions on abortion and other subjects.
In 1991, Alito upheld a law requiring women seeking an abortion to notify their spouses, but in 2000, he agreed that a law banning late-term abortions was unconstitutional.
Many conservatives would like to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established abortion rights. But even abortion rights Republicans have said it is not clear Alito would rule to overturn the landmark case.
Hatch said he "had no idea" whether Alito would shift the court to the right.
"I do think he's conservative," he said. "If you read his opinions you'll find he very narrowly construes the law."
Some Democrats on Tuesday said they were still contemplating a filibuster.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators banded together to avoid a stalemate over judicial appointments. It remains to be seen whether they will hold together and avoid the "nuclear option" -- a term that refers to the GOP threat to change the Senate rules so Democrats could not block the vote.
Hatch said he prefers the term "constitutional option," which he thinks is more dignified, and added he thought there should be reasonable time for debate and then the Senate should take a vote this year.
"I think it's important to get somebody on the bench as soon as you can," he said. "We have a duty to this country."
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)