Democrats praised President Barack Obama's nominee as a highly qualified legal scholar who would add a sorely needed note of fairness and commonsense to a court whose conservative majority, they argue, has run amok. Republicans charged she's an inexperienced cipher who would use her post to mold the law to her own liberal beliefs.
Despite the partisan divide, Kagan was on track for easy confirmation with the support of nearly all Democrats and a handful of GOP senators. In line to become the court's fourth woman, she's not expected to alter the ideological balance of the court in succeeding retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a leader of its liberal wing.
Special Section: Elena Kagan
"She made clear she'll base her approach to deciding cases on the law and the Constitution not on politics, not on an ideological agenda," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
He called her views "mainstream," and said she has "demonstrated her respect for the rule of law, her appreciation for the separation of powers, and her understanding of the meaning of our Constitution."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the panel's ranking Republican, presented a harsh indictment of Kagan, calling her an unqualified, intellectually dishonest nominee who would pretend to be an objective judge but instead seek to push her own agenda.
"I don't think it's a secret. I think this is pretty well known that this is not a judge committed to restraint, (or) objectivity," Sessions said. Her past actions and testimony indicate she'd be "an activist, liberal, progressive, politically minded judge who will not be happy simply to decide cases but will seek to advance her causes under the guise of judging."
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, pleaded for a "passionate but civil" debate over Kagan, the 50-year-old solicitor general and former Harvard Law School dean.
Still, the discussion was already infused with politics, coming just months before midterm congressional elections.
A conservative group heaped criticism on the five Republican senators who have announced plans to join Democrats in supporting Kagan, singling out Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the first defector, for special contempt.
"The people who sent Senator Graham to Washington to represent their wishes will surely remember this act," Andrea Lafferty, who heads the church lobby group Traditional Values Coalition, said in a statement.
The organization also blasted Kagan's other GOP supporters, Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, retiring Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar.
For his part, Sessions implored Democrats to take a second look at President Obama's nominee clearly hoping to persuade those from conservative-leaning states to vote "no."
"We're not lemmings here. We have a constitutional duty to make an independent decision," Sessions said.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is the only Democrat so far to say he plans to oppose Kagan.