Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation to the Supreme Court may already seem all but assured, but there's still a summer full of drama to be had: Which senators will distinguish themselves in the confirmation process, and which will wind up as damaged goods?
There's plenty of peril to go around.
Republicans may face a backlash if they're seen as charging too hard against a nominee who's both a woman and a Hispanic. Red-state Democrats will be under pressure from the right, which will make sure that their conservative-to-moderate constituents know all about Sotomayor's most controversial views. And some GOP Senate candidates may find themselves on the horns of an unhappy dilemma: Do you play to the conservative base or to Hispanic voters who could play a huge role in their 2010 races?
Here are the current senators with the most to win - and the most to lose.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.): Sotomayor is the first Supreme Court nominee to reach the Senate since Leahy assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007. A fierce partisan, the Vermont Democrat wants to heed Barack Obama's call to get Sotomayor to the bench before the court's next term starts in October. And that may mean getting her confirmed by the full Senate before the August recess - to give Sotomayor time to prepare for the cases she'll hear, and to deny conservatives a full month to build opposition to her confirmation.
But if Leahy pushes too aggressively on the hearing schedule, he could risk losing support from Republicans - or even centrists who could use the process as a reason to vote against the nominee.
"If this is not handled appropriately, it would give a tremendous excuse not just for Republicans but Democrats too, who have to be concerned about what Judge Sotomayor stands for," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, told POLITICO. "There are things that she has to answer." Hatch said he "seriously doubts" hearings could begin before the August recess.
Hatch said if Democrats treat the process fairly, "She'll probably be OK. ... If they don't, there is going to be a lot of fuss raised."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.): Largely unknown outside of Washington, the Alabama conservative catapulted to the top Republican spot on the Judiciary Committee after Sen. Arlen Specter's sudden departure to the Democratic Party. Republicans, on and off the Hill, will be taking cues from Sessions on how vigorously to fight the nomination.
Sessions, like most Senate Republicans, so far has been holding his fire. He said Wednesday that there is no filibuster "in the works" to block an up-or-down vote on Sotomayor's confirmation. If he doesn't start swinging, Sessions will anger conservatives who view him as a hero. But if he reacts too strongly, Democrats will portray him as the face of a diminished and regionalized Republican Party whose strength remains with Southern conservatives.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa): As part of a deal struck with Sessions, the more senior Grassley will become the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee next Congress. Grassley is not known for being a judicial warrior, and he's much more established in his senior position on the Finance Committee, where he is enormously influential on health care, trade and taxes. His performance at Sotomayor's confirmation hearings - particularly if he emerges as a leading critic - could ingratiate himself with leading conservatives unsure of how he would approach his role on as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which would give him substantial influence over the direction of the federal judiciary.
In an interview with POLITICO, Grasley dismissed the notion that Republicans risk backlash if they oppose a Hispanic woman. He said the real risk for senators is voting for the judge on factors other than her record and judicial temperament.
"There is a risk in anybody voting for anybody just because they're a woman or because they are African-American or anything about that individual," said Grassley, who voted against Sotomayor's 1998 nomination to a federal appeals court but voted for Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court in 1993. "You should vote for people based on their qualifications, and in case of the justice, their attitudes about the law, and their impartiality."
"She is just going to look at the law, look at the narrow interpretation of the law, and leave personal bias out of it - that's what I'll be looking for," Grassley said. "If she convinces me that she can't leave personal biases out of it … then I'm more apt to vote no." He said he will have an open mind about her appointment and will make a decision following the Judiciary Committee's hearings.
Grassley added that it would be a "mistake for [Democrats] to try to jam her through."
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.): Specter angered many women's groups with his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas's 1991 confirmation hearings, a battle that still looms over the 29-year Senate veteran today. Now Specter has a chance to make up to some women's groups - as well as to the large Puerto Rican population in Philadelphia - as he prepares to run for reelection in 2010 as a Democrat. He said last week that he had urged Obama to consider four women for the court, and he had already put out a statement praising the President's choice of Sotomayor.
After losing his seniority on the Judiciary Committee following his party switch, Specter will be the last Democrat to question Sotomayor, taking away valuable national TV time that he would have received as ranking Republican on the committee. But he reminded reporters last week that he was a junior senator during the Supreme Court hearings for Thomas, Robert Bork in 1987 and William Rehnquist in 1986 - and still got noticed."I was noticed during the Rehnquist hearings, he got madder than hell at me," Specter recalled.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas): Voting-age Hispanics represent about 29 percent of Texas' population, according to figures computed after the 2008 general election by the group the National Committee for an Effective Congress. Hutchison voted against Sotomayor in 1998 when she was nominated to a federal appeals court. But she wasn't a candidate for governor, as she is now, and her party wasn't as desperate for Latino votes as it is now.
The trick for Hutchison: Before she can run in the general election, she's got to beat conservative Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the GOP primary. That may force her to play to the base to win over skeptical conservative primary voters - even if that means losing support from Hispanics in a general-election run. Her Texas counterpart, John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also will have to gauge any Hispanic backlash since many GOP candidates in 2010 will certainly be reading his signals.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R): Crist has the Washington GOP establishment firmly behind him in his race to become the next U.S. senator from Florida. But he is viewed as a moderate - and more moderate than former state House Speaker Marco Rubio - which could be a knock against Crist in a 2010 primary dominated by conservatives. Rubio, a Spanish speaker of Cuban descent, already has raised concerns about Sotomayor, calling some of her past comments "troubling," and he could emerge as a high-profile Hispanic Republican critic of her nomnation. The question: Will Rubio's criticism give Crist cover if he wants to join in the opposition?
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska): Begich is a one of several red-state freshmen that conservatives hope to turn against Sotomayor based on her position on social issues - especially gun rights. In a 2009 Second Amendment case, Sotomayor sided against some gun-rights supporters, and conservative groups plan to highlight that ruling to put the pressure on Democrats in gun-friendly states such as Alaska.
A Begich spokeswoman said the senator is looking forward to "learning more about her as the nomination process goes forward."
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.): Lincoln is among the top NRSC targets this year, and she is certain to hear the argument that Sotomayor's positions fall outside of the mainstream of voters in her state.
She could be given cover if Republicans join in support of Sotomayor; if not, she will certainly face enormous pressure from Republicans in Washington and back home to join in the opposition.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.): Dodd's home state has a big Puerto Rican population, and he'll need every vote he can get now that he's emerged as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat seeking reelection and is trailing former Republican congressman Rob Simmons in statewide polls. Dodd, whose popularity ratings have tanked since his unsuccessful run for president in 2008, could try to lock down the Latino constituency that Republicans are courting aggressively as well.
reported by Manu Raju