Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor today begins the time-honored practice of visiting with each Senator prior to the start of confirmation hearings, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) first in line.
But while these visits may seem like little more than courtesy calls, they will in fact play a central role in the fate of Sotomayors nomination, if history is any guide.
Take the case of Harriet Miers, the much-maligned friend of President George W. Bush who saw her nomination to the Supreme Court yanked before her hearings could even get started in 2005.
Republicans and Democrats alike credited her collapse to a poor performance in her meetings with Senators the lawmakers didnt feel she had the intellectual weight or experience to merit a lifetime appointment to the high court. That, coupled with an aggressive Internet campaign by liberal and conservative opponents, quickly brought the nomination down.
Conversely, Chief Justice John Roberts was a hit with lawmakers when he made the rounds in 2005 particularly with Leahy, who was then the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee.
Despite his staunchly conservative views, Democrats largely saw Roberts as a highly qualified jurist, and when Leahy ultimately threw his weight behind the nomination, Roberts won confirmation by a wide, bipartisan margin.
Opponents also spent the weeks prior to the Roberts confirmation hearings fruitlessly digging for a smoking gun.
Republicans head into the next few weeks facing similar pressure. According to GOP aides, Republican staff on the Judiciary Committee will use the next several weeks to continue poring through the thousands of cases that Sotomayor has been involved in over the years, her law review articles and her public statements.
Republicans hope to use a case-by-case, opinion-by-opinion review to come up with a thoughtful critique of this womans career, a senior GOP aide said. And while Republicans harbor no illusions that they can block the nomination short of a major scandal, they do view the process as a teachable moment to lay out their differences with Democrats over the judiciary, the aide said.
As part of that, Republicans this week will kick off their messaging efforts on the confirmation process in earnest, with an emphasis on the need for a long, exhaustive review of her record while building on their concerns that she will not be a strict constructionist while on the court.
In a Senate floor speech Monday, McConnell unveiled Republicans arguments, saying that while the GOP will treat Sotomayor fairly, respectful doesnt mean rushed. Judge Sotomayor has a long record, and it will take a long time to get through it. Shes served 17 years on both the trial and the appellate court. Shes been involved in more than 3,600 cases since becoming a judge. In order to conduct a thorough examination of all these cases, its vital that the Senate have sufficient time to do so.
He also criticized statements that she has made that Republicans believe point to a tendency to try to use the judicial system to forward her own personal political beliefs.
One of these is a statement she made a few years back that the court of appeals is, Where policy is made. I think thats a tough statement to square with Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which clearly contemplates a far more limited role for federal judges, and I suspect that a number of us over here in the legislative branch will want to ask Judge Sotomayor questions about that statement, McConnell said.
McConnell is expected to use the Senate floor as a vehicle to build the partys case against Sotomayor, and Republicans speaking about the nomination will likely become a familiar sight for C-SPAN viewers.
McConnell and Sessions had hoped to use Sundays talk-show circuit to establish the GOP critique of Sotomayor. But those plans were set back thanks to conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, former Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who last week trumped the GOP message when they accused Sotomayor of being a racist.
Republicans said they hope they have put the controversy behind them. One leadership aide noted that Senate Republicans have held a number of conversations with the leaders of conservative organizations like the Federalist Society. During those meetings, Republicans have privately pressed them on the need to avoid incendiary comments and McConnells desire to maintain at least the air of impartiality, and most conservative leaders have agreed.
Theyre on the same page now, the GOP leadership aide said.
As for Democrats, at this point they have a far easier hand to play the effort by conservative activists to brand Sotomayor as a racist didnt gain any traction and was an unwelcome distraction for Senate Republicans trying to take a more serious approach to the process.
And in the absence of any bombshells, Sotomayors Democratic defenders can be expected to stick to the White House script she is a tough but fair and thoughtful jurist who embodies the American dream, one senior Democratic aide said.
Talking points distributed by Reids office on the nomination stress this notion, highlighting her personal background, her experience at all levels of the judicial system and her record on the court.
But one thing that Democrats are unlikely to do is engage in a tit-for-tat battle with Limbaugh, Gingrich and other conservative activists.
One Democrat explained that they dont see a running battle with those elements of the GOP as a particularly helpful exercise for Democrats. And while they may take great pleasure in watching McConnell and his brethren struggle with elements of their base, Democrats will steer clear of inserting themselves into that fight.