President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is not yet done with her first day of Senate courtesy calls and it’s already apparent that her visit has been tougher on Senate Republicans than it has been on her.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and his members have gone out of the way to strike a moderate, calm tone. “We’re going to go through the process, read all the cases, other expressions like law review articles and that sort of thing, so that we can get the full set of facts on this nominee and go forward in the same manner we did recently with Chief Justice Roberts and with Justice Alito,” McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
Standing next to McConnell at a press conference just off the Senate floor, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, chimed in, “The one thing that I wanted to say at this point is this. There’s already been a lot said about Judge Sotomayor. I think we need to hold our fire until we examine all of these opinions and writings.” Kyl’s remarks were a gentle rebuke of right-wing groups that are pushing – some of them very vocally – for Senate Republicans to filibuster Sotomayor. In a letter delivered to Senate Republicans Tuesday, more than 145 conservatives – including Grover Norquist, Richard Viguerie and Gary Bauer — called for a filibuster of Sotomayor’s nomination, as Politico first reported.
The head of the group even went so far as to suggest that McConnell “consider resigning” because of his “limp wristed” and “tone deaf” approach to Sotomayor. The letter was mild, though, compared to other name calling with Rush Limbaugh labeling Sotomayor a “reverse racist,” and former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo calling her a member of the “Latino KKK.”
Aside from Kyl’s remark, most GOP senators did their level best to ignore the furor. “I don’t know, I haven’t paid any attention to it,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and 2008 GOP presidential nominee who voted against Sotomayor’s elevation to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998.
“I haven’t heard of any” racist statements concerning Sotomayor, said Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran who voted for Sotomayor in 1998.
“We live in a time of ridiculous hyperbole in this country and very little of it is productive,” said New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who also voted to elevate Sotomayor in 1998.
“I don’t like using loaded terms particularly with an issue as sensitive as race. This is a very important subject for America and how we talk about it, so I think care is needed in that,” said Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
While the Senate GOPers try to turn a collective blind eye, Dems have been paying attention and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said Tuesday after meeting with Sotomayor that he would like to see her confirmed before the August recess. “I think some of the attacks made against her have been among the most vicious I’ve ever seen by anybody,” Leahy said. “And the one thing that gives me any consolation in this, the senators, the Republican senators have not done that, and they’ve resisted from it… Given the attacks on Judge Sotomayor’s character, I do not think it fair to delay her hearing and her opportunity to respond to her critics.”
Those critics have focused on remarks she made at a 2002 UC Berkeley event arguing her personal biases would color her rulings on the court – an accusation essentially disproved when one examines her record thus far. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” Sotomayor said at Berkley.
Sotomayor tried to set the record straight Tuesday, telling both Leahy and Sessions she values the law above all else. “What she said was of course one’s life experience shapes who you are, but ultimately and completely — and she used those words ‘ultimately and completely’ as a judge you follow the law,” Leahy said. “There’s not one law for one race or another. There’s not one law for one color or another. There’s not one law for rich, a different one for poor. There’s only one law.”
By the end of the day Sessions – who at first called for a September confirmation – had softened his position. Asked if he’d fight Leahy on an August confirmation, Sessions responded, “No, I respect Senator Leahy and I want to hear what his views are.” There’s a risk in dragging things out because the elected voices are not the ones dominating the news. “The attention that the conservative activists are getting tends to overshadow the more measured responses by Republican senators and House members, including the leaders, and really does run the risk of alienating a lot of Hispanic Americans,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. So the question is: if you’re a Republican senator and you’re taking hits from all sides – why on Earth would you want to drag this out?