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.

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

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

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.

The comment that has sparked much of the controversy came in a 2001 speech in Berkeley, Calif., on how personal experiences affect a judge's perspective. “I would hope that a Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” Sotomayor said.

Questioned on this quotation Sunday on CBS News' “Face the Nation,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona said: “I’m sure she will argue that you have to look at the entire context of her speech, and all of the decisions that she has rendered – the opinions that she has written – and that’s a fair point.”

Senator Kyl is the minority whip and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Republicans' 'simple principles'

So far, Senate Republicans are solidly united on the message heading into these hearings. In a floor speech Monday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that he had assured Judge Sotomayor that she would be treated “fairly and respectfully.”

“Throughout this process, Republicans will be guided by a few simple principles. But perhaps the most important ones are these: Americans expect and should receive equal treatment under the law, and Americans want judges who understand their role is to interpret the law, not write it,” he added.

While stopping short of threatening a filibuster, Mr. McConnell said that Republicans expected adequate time to vet her record of some 3,600 cases. “For Justice Alito, the Senate had 70 days to prepare for an informed hearing. And like Judge Sotomayor, Justice Alito had thousands of cases for senators to review,” he said.

President Obama has asked for a vote on the nomination by the end of July.

Conservatives' memo

But what troubles conservative activists in this scenario is the prospect that Senate Republicans, facing a nomination they are likely to lose, may be tempted to contain the fight within the Judiciary Committee, rather than use the fight to build up the conservative movement.

In a June 1 letter, the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of conservative groups, called on Senate GOP leaders to “mobilize all Republican members and staffs and create opportunity for comment and debate, in and out of the Judiciary Committee, on and off the Senate floor, and in and out of Washington, from this moment until the final floor vote.”

“The times have changed, and we expect more from you than once we might have,” the letter concludes.

“From a partisan point of view, there’s no issue that better unites us than this,” says Manuel Miranda, a former Senate Judiciary Committee aide who chairs the Third Branch Conference. “Somehow our elected officials haven’t gotten this memo.”

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