“She doesn’t have the punch out there in terms of fundraising and recruiting, I think — at least so far,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who most likely will be elected as the No. 4 Republican in Senate leadership this week.
The calculus could certainly change when Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings begin July 13. But the Republican senators’ initial review of Sotomayor’s record, together with the meetings they’ve had with her, have left them doubting that she’ll be controversial enough to help them or hurt the Democrats heading into the 2010 elections.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the opposition to Sotomayor doesn’t have the same intensity he felt in 2005, when the GOP threatened the minority’s right to filibuster judicial nominees.
“Right now, you don’t have the fever pitch you did over the filibuster,” said Graham, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “It depends on how she does [at the hearings]. If she performs well, no. If she performs poorly, potentially, yes.”
“I don’t think she’s the kind of person that invites that kind of reaction,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) of the possibility of making major political gains over Sotomayor’s nomination. “I don’t think her judicial record warrants the ability to do that with her.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) might be counted on to take an aggressive stand against Sotomayor’s nomination. But he’s in an awkward position: As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he doesn’t want to be seen as using the nomination for purely political purposes.
“You know, we’re just going to do our job under the Second Amendment: Section 2 of Article 2 of the Constitution, to advise and consent,” Cornyn said. Referring to the NRSC headquarters down the street from the Capitol, Cornyn said, “I really don’t mix my jobs across the street with what we’re doing over here.”
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Cornyn said he’s “comfortable” doing both jobs — and that so far, he hasn’t viewed Sotomayor’s nomination as one that would become a major issue in the campaigns.
“I think Republicans have [a] basically different approach to the confirmation process,” Cornyn said. “As I told her, we’re going to treat her with respect and treat her fairly, and that’s the kind of treatment I think every nominee would receive. But it seems to be more the exception than the rule around here.”
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while serving on the Judiciary Committee that considered President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito. At the time, Schumer’s DSCC took some shots at Bush for packing the court with “right-wing ideologues,” and the committee targeted then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) over Alito’s position on abortion; Chafee later voted against Alito.
Senate Republicans are very sensitive to the risk of bullying Sotomayor, who would be the first Hispanic on the court — especially after Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich called her a “racist” for her remarks that a “wise Latina woman” could come to a better conclusion than a white judge. Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the DSCC, said Democrats will again be gauging whether to target any Republicans who “take the Limbaugh-Gingrich approach” to the confirmation proceedings.
Thune said the response fro Republican senators has been relatively muted in part because Sotomayor was nominated to replace Justice David Souter rather than a more conservative justice.
“When one of the conservatives leaves the court, then I think you’ll have a huge fight, and I think that will be very galvanizing,” Thune said.
Still, he acknowledged that things can change once the confirmation hearings begin. “The process is just starting, and it may build as time goes on, as the Judiciary Committee hearings get under way, and as she starts to testify and express more of her views in the public forum.”
Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative group Committee for Justice, said senators are often slow to get into politically thorny fights — and do so only after a passionate showing by their base. Levey said he expects GOP senators to gear up for the fight, particularly during the confirmation proceedings. And he said that he is pushing the Republicans hard to delay a final Senate confirmation vote until after the monthlong August recess, to give opposition groups enough time to spotlight any controversial statements Sotomayor makes during the hearings.
“She is sort of like a Robert Bork: She’s very opinionated, and when she should be silent, she isn’t,” Levey said.
The anti-abortion-rights group Americans United for Life is running a campaign called “Worse Than Souter” that aims to convince senators and the public that Sotomayor’s views on abortion are left of Souter’s. Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of the group, said it will take time for the public to fully grasp Sotomayor’s record and that AUL’s job “is to really communicate with people about the nomination.”
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said some of these opposition views will be aired during the hearings through GOP witnesses.
“If somebody’s got a strong feeling, or got some ideas about a nominee, there’s a chance to express them if they’re reasonable and worthy of hearing,” Sessions said. “I think we should do that.”