Smooth Debut for Sotomayor

GOP Holds Fire on Court Pick

Posted June 2, 2009 at 6:30pm

The opening round of meetings between Supreme Court hopeful Sonia Sotomayor and key Senators went off without a hitch Tuesday, suggesting that the New York appeals court jurist may face a smoother-than-expected ride onto the nation’s most powerful bench.

In fact, the only area where there was any outward tension in the halls of the Capitol was over the timing of hearings and a vote on her installment to the high court. Republican Senators on Tuesday pushed to have the vetting occur in the fall, while Democrats made clear they were in no mood to draw out the process.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Tuesday said he would not wait to hold hearings until September, saying he didn’t want Sotomayor to have to wait to respond to her critics. Conservatives have called Sotomayor’s record into question, taken issue with some of her past statements and even suggested that she is a racist.

“With the attacks that have been going on against her, I think it would be irresponsible to leave her out there that long,— Leahy said at a press conference following his meeting with Sotomayor. Leahy has ruled out holding Judiciary hearings in June, but he also said that short of an emergency, he would not agree to hold them during the monthlong August recess. That leaves the month of July to bring Sotomayor before his panel.

While Republicans were clearly unhappy with Leahy’s hard-line approach to the timing of hearings, they did not outwardly attack him, either.

“I don’t think it would be irresponsible, and I would urge the chairman to keep an open mind on that. … I don’t think it’s good to rush this,— Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said following his own meeting with Sotomayor.

As expected, Sotomayor — appearing at ease despite the hundreds of reporters who trailed her for much of the day — kept quiet in public aside from trading pleasantries with Senators during tightly controlled photo opportunities. Sotomayor met with 10 Senators on Tuesday, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senators, for the most part, stuck to their scripts. Democrats used the meetings to laud Sotomayor’s life story and her record as a lawyer and jurist, while Republicans continued to call for a lengthy review process and cautioned against making any early judgments on her fitness for the Supreme Court.

[IMGCAP(1)]For instance, prior to his sit-down with Sotomayor, Reid said: “Everyone in America, I want them to understand that we have the whole package here. If that wasn’t enough, her background is very significant. … We could not have anyone better qualified.—

Speaking to reporters following a late lunch with the high court hopeful and fellow New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), Sen. Charles Schumer (D) brushed off the criticism from conservatives who have taken Sotomayor to task for saying that a Latina would make “better— judicial decisions than a white male. As he beamed over her credentials and humble upbringing in the Bronx, Schumer said Sotomayor’s meetings this week with Republican Judiciary Committee members are “going to allay any concerns— over her previous statements.

“I’m convinced as she talks to my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, that she is going to so impress them,— said Schumer, a member of the Judiciary Committee and Democratic leadership.

Republicans were similarly sticking to the party talking points, arguing for a slow vetting of her lengthy career and largely avoiding any heated rhetoric.

“There’s already been a lot said about Judge Sotomayor. I think we need to hold our fire until we examine all of these opinions and writings,— said Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who also serves on the Judiciary Committee.

But while no Republicans were making pronouncements about her qualifications, it appeared that by day’s end Sotomayor had left them with somewhat of a positive impression.

Sessions, for instance, emerged from an hourlong meeting with candidate, offering her high marks.

“We had a good discussion with Judge Sotomayor,— Sessions said before once again praising her background as an attorney, trial judge and appeals court jurist. “I think that is a good background for any judge, particularly a Supreme Court judge,— he said.

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.