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GOP quandary: how hard to swing at Sotomayor

Republicans on Capitol Hill are acutely aware that the tone and content of the nominee's hearing could redefine the party after two punishing national elections.

By Staff writer / June 1, 2009

In this file photo, the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions, confers with Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Washington

Republicans preparing for confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor see little prospect, barring surprises, of blocking her nomination to the US Supreme Court.

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But many GOP lawmakers are acutely aware that the tone and content of the hearings could help to redefine the Republican Party after two punishing national elections – or further weaken it.

If Republicans are seen as unfairly attacking Judge Sotomayor, who would become the high court's first Hispanic justice, they risk alienating Latino and female voters the party will need to mount a comeback.

On the other hand, conservative activists, in a letter released Monday, say they expect Senate Republicans to “rise to the extraordinary educable moment that a Supreme Court nomination represents." They urged GOP lawmakers to "mobilize" their forces to give a full-throated debate of the nomination "from this moment until the final floor vote.”

Dangers of attack

Sotomayor, who has served on the federal bench for 17 years, this week begins meetings with senators on Capitol Hill in her bid to replace retiring Justice David Souter. It's a tough issue for Republicans, probably one of several epic debates ahead as Democrats propose to overhaul healthcare, energy policy, and government oversight of industry and financial markets.

"If they attack her or bring her down in Bork-like fashion, they paint the worst picture of the Republican Party at a moment that the party needs to change its approach and its message," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey, referring to Senate Democrats' blitz of Judge Robert Bork, a Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court, in 1987.

"The attackers are going to come out of this nomination process much more bruised than the Democrats," he adds.

Rifts between conservative activists and GOP senators over how to deal with the Sotomayor nomination emerged early in the process.

Senators speak out

Senators appearing on Sunday talk shows distanced themselves from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s charge last week that Sotomayor “brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court.”

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate description of her,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“We should not demagogue race. It’s an important issue in our culture and our country. We need to handle it with the respect that it deserves and the care that it deserves,” he added.