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Leahy Tries to Head Off Confirmation Brawl

With the Senate preparing for the first Supreme Court confirmation of the Obama era, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is already trying to smooth the process, making peace offerings to ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and urging colleagues to avoid a partisan war.

Since Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his retirement last month, Leahy has held lengthy discussions with President Barack Obama on the process for moving the nomination and has held a number of talks with Sessions to set the basic ground rules for the hearing.

The Senate makes additional funds available to the committee for the nomination process, and Leahy has agreed to split these resources evenly with Republicans, despite Democrats’ majority on the panel.

Sessions praised his colleague and said that despite Leahy’s often partisan tone, he believes the chairman is committed to treating Republicans fairly during the confirmation process. “Pat can be so charming, but he can also be a fierce leader,” Sessions said. Nevertheless, “I think he is committed to giving us a fair hearing.”

Privately, however, other Republicans continue to chafe at the idea of Leahy leading the process, arguing that he is brutally partisan.

“There’s never been a more fiercely partisan chairman of a committee than Patrick Leahy,” one Republican staffer said, adding that GOP members are increasingly concerned he will do only the bare minimum to maintain an appearance of fairness during the confirmation process.

But despite the sharp-tongued former prosecutor’s reputation as an aggressive partisan warrior, Leahy insists he doesn’t want the looming confirmation debate to devolve into politics.

“I would hope the level of partisanship would drop down,” Leahy said during an interview earlier this month, arguing that overly partisan confirmation debates can “diminish the public’s respect of the Supreme Court.”

Leahy has also bucked his own party in prior Supreme Court fights.

For instance, after meeting with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during the early stages of her confirmation process, Leahy supported her despite initial opposition from liberals concerned about her links to conservative icon Barry Goldwater.

Likewise, after meeting with Souter, Leahy came out in favor of his nomination by President George H.W. Bush — which drew loud protests from the left. “I had picketers outside my office,” Leahy said.

And while Leahy opposed the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, he backed President George W. Bush’s nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts over the objections of Democratic leadership and helped bring a number of his colleagues on board.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “gave a speech on the floor against him. I was next up and gave a speech for, and it probably got him 20 additional votes,” Leahy said.

Leahy said he has cast votes on every sitting member of the court, as well as several who no longer serve. “Over 35 years, you get to vote on quite a lot of Supreme Court justices,” Leahy said.

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