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 Leahys 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.
Theres 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 prosecutors reputation as an aggressive partisan warrior, Leahy insists he doesnt 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 publics 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 OConnor 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. Bushs 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.
Leahy said that during his initial discussions with Obama, he urged the president to follow the process for selecting a nominee that Bush used in tapping Roberts, including reaching out to members of both parties to discuss the nomination and holding a meeting with Leahy, Sessions, Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Obama hosted that meeting earlier this month.
Similarly, Leahy said he would like to use a hearing process similar to the one that he and then-Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.) used during the Roberts nomination. While those hearings featured outside experts brought in by both sides, most of the focus was on Roberts himself, and Specter and Leahy sought to provide Democrats and Republicans alike with ample opportunity to fully question Roberts before voting on his nomination.
Everybody has different ways of doing it, but the way Sen. Specter and I tried to do it with Chief Justice Roberts and Alito was to make sure everybody on both sides got to ask all the questions they want, Leahy said, adding that he hopes he and Sessions can keep any partisan grandstanding by members of the committee to a minimum.
Leahy said his shared past with Sessions both were federal prosecutors has helped them develop a close personal relationship over the years. We end up in the Senators dining room saying, Did you ever have a case that involved whatever ... and we talk like that, Leahy said, adding that he and Sessions have talked several times in recent weeks. Ive talked with Jeff already several times. We have a good personal relationship.
Leahy dismissed concerns among liberals that Sessions more conservative positions compared to Specters could mean a bruising fight.
Is he more conservative? Sure, Leahy said. But while conservative activists were agitating for Republicans to block the nomination of Eric Holder as attorney general, Sessions supported him.
Jeff Sessions voted for Eric Holder. He asked tough questions, but he voted for him.
Sessions said he and Leahy have a good personal and working relationship. Hes a lot of fun, and I hope we have a good hearing, Sessions said, adding he was pleased that Leahy had agreed to split funding for the process evenly. Oh, hes so sweet to me, Sessions quipped.
Leahy said he believes that while outside testimony is helpful, Members should use the nominees record and responses to questioning as the test for whether they will support him.
Leahy said that he, like most of the members of the Judiciary Committee, initially supported President Ronald Reagans nomination of Robert Bork to the high court, but that changed during questioning by the committee.
When Bork came in before the thing started, he probably had all but two or three votes on the committee ... myself included, Leahy said. Borks conflicting answers to questions ultimately led him to oppose the nomination, Leahy said.
Leahy also decried the use of the nomination process by groups across the political spectrum as a fundraising and organizing opportunity, pointing to statements by conservative leaders that they would use the pending nomination to whip up the base of the Republican Party, even before a nominee has been announced.
Thats as irresponsible as some on the left opposing Souter, Leahy said. Raising money off it is highly irresponsible ... were talking about the Supreme Court of the United States. When you make that kind of political partisan furor over it, you diminish the publics respect in the court.
As for how smoothly the hearings will go, Leahy acknowledged that it will largely depend on the type of nominee Obama selects.
Ideally, the best way to do it is to get it done before the August recess, Leahy said.
But if we have a controversial nominee, itll probably be mid-September. If we have a noncontroversial nominee, I cant think of any reason why we could have it done by the August recess, he added.
Sessions, agreed, saying that while there may be a push to complete the confirmation process quickly, he believes Republicans will ultimately be given enough time to vet the nominee. There will be pressure to move, but I dont think well have any difficulty on timing, Sessions said.