Conservatives are demanding that Senate Republicans take a harder line on Sonia Sotomayor, with new signs of tension between the Hill GOP and elements of the Republican base over the direction the opposition should move in the Supreme Court fight.
In a letter to be delivered to Senate Republicans Tuesday, more than 145 conservatives – including Grover Norquist, Richard Viguerie and Gary Bauer — call for a filibuster of Sotomayor’s nomination if that’s what it takes to force a “great debate” over judicial philosophy.
But in an interview with POLITICO, Manuel Miranda – who orchestrated the letter – went much farther, saying that McConnell should “consider resigning” as Senate minority leader if he can’t take a harder line on President Barack Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee.
Miranda, the chairman of the Third Branch Conference, served as counsel to McConnell’s predecessor, then-Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist. He left that job in 2004 amid allegations that he improperly accessed thousands of memos and emails from Democratic staffers – circumstances McConnell’s supporters recalled as they pushed back hard against Miranda’s arguments Monday.
“It’s unfortunate that one disgraced former employee of previous Senate leadership has decided to air out his grievances rather than join the conservative effort to examine Judge Sotomayor’s record,” said a senior GOP Senate aide. “Not only did this guy steal the Democrats’ playbook, he seems to be implementing it.”
The conservatives’ letter and the dust-up over Miranda’s comments come just as Senate Republicans hoped to regain control over the GOP message on Sotomayor. With senators off on their week-long Memorial Day recess, the media focused less on their views on Sotomayor and more on the pronouncements of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, both of whom declared her a “racist.”
Fearing a backlash from moderates, women and Hispanics, most Senate Republicans would prefer a more measured approach – and aides were hopeful Monday morning that they were on their way to reasserting one.
“This week, it will become clear that the Republicans who will actually be part of the process of dealing with the nominee, deciding on the nominee and voting on the nominee are the ones in the Senate — not journalists or commentators,” a senior Senate Republican aide said Monday.
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But that was before the conservatives sent their letter – and before Miranda went on the attack against McConnell, who he said has cost the GOP seats in the Senate by being too weak on judicial matters.
Asked Monday if conservatives off Capitol Hill were trampling on the Republicans’ more measured approach to the Sotomayor nomination, Sen. Jeff Sessions — the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee — said: “I think those of us in the Senate are sure to treat this nominee fairly. I’m not prepared to use [words like “racist” to describe Sotomayor], and I’m not comfortable using those words. It’s a free country. Somebody can say what they want to about this or that case — I’ll let them defend their own position.”
Asked on MSNBC if he agreed with Limbaugh, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday: “I can’t start out with that attitude. I owe her; I owe the American people; I owe the president to look at her just as dispassionately as she comes before our committee, the same way that I just explained to you she ought to look dispassionately at the law.”
In addition to criticizing some of Sotomayor’s rulings directly, Senate Republicans are focusing on process, suggesting that if Democrats tryto ram through her nomination quickly, it will be a cause for most Republicans to vote against her. The hope is that a slower confirmation process will give Republicans a chance to make their case on judicial philosophy, even if they seem almost certain to fall far short of preventing Sotomayor from filling the seat being vacated by Justice David Souter.
McConnell voted against Sotomayor in 1998 when she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. On Monday, McConnell said he had voted against her because he believed “she’d bring pre-existing personal and political beliefs into the courtroom” and that “many of the same concerns I had about Judge Sotomayor 11 years ago persist.”
McConnell said “the most important [principles] 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.”
In arguing for a filibuster — which Senate Republicans have already said is unlikely — Miranda and other conservatives appear to be reversing course: When Democrats were in the minority, they demanded that judicial nominees of George W. Bush get up-or-down votes on the Senate floor.
But in their letter, the conservatives say their plan is different. While Democrats threatened to use a filibuster to block nominees, conservatives say they’re advocating a “traditional” filibuster to ensure that the debate over Sotomayor is “appropriately long and, therefore, suitably catalyzed to the American people.”
Norquist and Miranda reportedly got into a tiff at a meeting last Wednesday with conservative activists, where Miranda slammed McConnell on the judicial issue, and Norquist said the meeting was not meant to air such concerns, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Miranda on Monday downplayed the dispute, and Norquist called it “off the record.”
Miranda also declined to ask the Judicial Confirmation Network, one of the leading conservative judicial groups, to sign on to his letter, calling the group “an arm of [Republican] leadership” in the Senate.
Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network said the group is not affiliated with the leadership and said she didn’t “really understand” the comment. She also praised McConnell’s stance on Obama’s nominees, saying, “I think it’s a mistake to lay a lot of this at his feet.”