Acknowledging that it will be difficult to defeat the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Republicans in the Senate and beyond Capitol Hill are looking for other strategies to gain political yardage in the debate over President Obama’s pick.
They are spotlighting her decisions on wedge issues such as gun rights that could put pressure on Democrats from conservative states. And they are preparing for confirmation hearings that they hope will spotlight major differences between the political parties’ legal philosophies.
With Democrats controlling a commanding 59 seats in the 100-member Senate, about all the GOP could do to block the nomination would be to mount a filibuster, although the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee has downplayed that possibility.
Even conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh seemed resigned to Sotomayor’s confirmation. “The odds that she could be stopped are long,” Limbaugh said.
But other conservative activists see lines of attack that would make a filibuster unnecessary: They aim to paint a portrait of Sotomayor to make conservative Democrats squirm, eroding support from within Obama’s party.
That is what’s happened to Dawn Johnsen, Obama’s choice to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, whose confirmation has stalled because of her past legal work for a major abortion rights group.
Conservatives see another precedent for defeating a nominee without a filibuster: President George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw the nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court, under pressure from Republicans who said she was not up to the job.
For now, however, Republicans in the Senate are taking a deliberate wait-and-see approach. Sotomayor called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday and promised to meet with him. In the meantime, teams of GOP lawyers started poring over the hundreds of opinions and speeches in Sotomayor’s long paper trail.
Conservative critics are already spotlighting a ruling by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, including Sotomayor, that found that the 2nd Amendment’s protection of citizens’ gun rights did not apply to state or local regulations. She and her fellow judges argued that the Supreme Court did not resolve that question when it decided last year that the 2nd Amendment applied in the District of Columbia, a federal city.
Conservatives say they will portray the ruling as hostile to gun rights and use it as ammunition against Democrats from conservative or rural states where gun rights are prized.
“These senators will jeopardize their seats if they vote to support an anti-gun radical for the Supreme Court,” said Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow with the conservative Family Research Council.
In a conference call arranged by the White House, Martha Minow of Harvard Law School said there was no basis for drawing conclusions about Sotomayor’s view of the 2nd Amendment from that decision. “She simply adhered to what the state of the law was at that time,” Minow said.
A new Web advertisement was made within a day of her nomination by conservative critics that suggested she was not committed to equal justice under law. “America deserves better,” said the ad by the Judicial Confirmation Network.
An organization of civil rights groups, the Coalition for Constitutional Values, countered with a pro-Sotomayor ad that offered a different picture of her: “Principled. Fair Minded. Independent.” That was just the beginning of ad wars that may rage through the summer.
Sotomayor will start making the rounds on Capitol Hill next week to meet with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Obama has asked the Senate to confirm her before Congress adjourns in early August for a monthlong recess.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has been traveling abroad this week, said he would set a schedule next week after consulting with the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. A source familiar with the planning said that Leahy had told Democratic leaders that he should at least get a committee vote on the nomination by August.
But Sessions has suggested the final vote may not come until September.
“I would think that we need to all have a good hearing, take our time and do it right,” Sessions said in an interview with CNN, “and then the senators cast their vote up or down.”
James Oliphant in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.