Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy’s move to set a July 13 start date for Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination hearings has infuriated Republicans, who are threatening to slow walk every step of the confirmation so they can have more time to dig through her judicial and personal history.
The aggressive scheduling move — carried out without informing Republicans on the Judiciary Committee — threatens to harm the decent rapport the panel has had since Sotomayor’s nomination last month. Some Republicans, like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have already threatened to boycott the confirmation hearings.
"I don't think it’s a good way to begin the proceedings,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who added that he was “surprised” by Leahy’s move. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republican Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) both took to the Senate floor to criticize the hearing schedule.
But on Tuesday, Leahy indicated he was tired of Republican attacks on Sotomayor, arguing that it took John Roberts only 72 days to be confirmed from the time he was nominated and that Sotomayor’s confirmation is on a similar timeline.
“There is no reason to unduly delay consideration of this well-qualified nominee,” Leahy said. “Indeed, given the attacks on her character, there are compelling reasons to proceed even ahead of this schedule. She deserves the earliest opportunity to respond to those attacks.”
Leahy told POLITICO he had a “long talk with the president” — who, Leahy said, is supportive of the hearing schedule.
“I want to be fair to the nominee and allow her the earliest possible opportunity to respond to the attacks made about her character,” Leahy explained. “It is not fair for her critics to be calling her racist without allowing her the opportunity to respond.”
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Several Republicans said they were upset with Leahy for scheduling the hearing without much GOP input and indicated they may use delay tactics in committee and on the floor to give themselves more time.
“I’m not sure we’ll be ready,” said Coburn, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. “If I’m ready to attend, I will attend. If I’m not, I won’t.”
Asked if he’d skip the hearing if he felt rushed, Coburn said: “I’m certainly not going to ask questions if I’m not prepared.”
“This seems like a unilateral and political decision by Leahy and Senate Democrats,” said one Republican Senate aide, adding: “[Leahy] knows that the longer this nomination sits, the public support for her will begin to dwindle.”
Republicans argue that they would need to read 76 cases a day to get prepared for the hearings.
“She has 10 times as many decisions as Roberts did,” said Kyl, who is also on the Judiciary Committee.” “It takes a long time to go through that material. We’ll simply have to wait and see how that review goes. I’ve checked, and it’s not going really fast. It’s hard to do.”
But Leahy pushed aside concerns about workload, saying that members have staffs for a good reason.
“If we can’t get that done, shame on us,” he retorted.
And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that if Sotomayor’s nomination is stalled until after the August recess, it would be the longest period of time a Supreme Court nominee would have to wait for hearings to start.
“There’s no reason this can’t be done,” Reid told reporters. “If [Republicans] want to take more time than has ever been taken in the history of this country, then something is wrong.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a senior membr of the Judiciary Committee, upped the Democratic offensive, saying Sotomayor shouldn’t be treated any differently than Roberts or Samuel Alito in terms of scheduling.
“Unlike the case for Justice Roberts or Justice Alito, her entire record is already publicly available and is hardly inscrutable. There is no need to insist that her confirmation process take any longer than theirs did,” Schumer said.
At the very least, Leahy’s decision irked Sessions, who complained that Leahy did not talk to him about the scheduling before announcing the July 13 date. The two men met to discuss timing last week.
“I’m really a bit surprised,” Sessions said. “I don’t think our side has the time to do this right. ... That’s a rushed time frame, and I don’t think that’s necessary. I have serious doubts about [the time frame], but we’re going to be working on it.”
Whatever the case, Leahy appears unwilling to budge on the July 13 date.
Asked if the date was set in stone, Leahy responded: “Yes.”
Meanwhile, Sotomayor continued to make the rounds in the Senate, and on Tuesday, Florida Republican Mel Martinez stopped just short of pledging his support after a closed-door meeting with her, but he made little secret that he was leaning in that direction.
“I am going to withhold any judgment about her nomination until after the Judiciary Committee hearings,” Martinez told reporters today, then added: “I am very, very impressed with her — not only her personal qualities but also her qualities as a judge.”