GOP Appears to Wave White Flag as Sotomayor Hearings End

Posted July 16, 2009 at 3:28pm

Nothing may sum up Senate Republicans’ attitudes as the final day of Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings wound down better than when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) started his last round of questions by greeting her as “Justice, judge, Sotomayor.—

Likewise, Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) made clear that a filibuster of the nomination was not in the offing. Nor, for that matter, would Republicans try to delay a final vote.

“I will not support, and I don’t think any Republican will support, a filibuster or an attempt to block a vote. … I look forward to getting you that vote before the recess in August,— Sessions said.

Indeed, by midmorning Thursday, when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praised Sotomayor and all but endorsed her installment on the high court, Republicans were clearly resigned to the fact that Sotomayor would be easily confirmed before the August recess. Graham earlier this week took after Sotomayor on a series of issues, including her judicial temperament and previous statements. But by Thursday’s hearing, the conservative Senator had clearly changed his tune.

Responding to Sotomayor’s answer to a question over how she would view a case challenging whether gun rights are “fundamental— under the law, Graham praised Sotomayor’s ability to check her political beliefs at the door.

“I don’t know how you’re going to come out on that case because I think fundamentally you’re able, after all these years as a judge, to embrace a right you may not want for yourself. … That is what makes you, for me, more acceptable as a judge, and not an activist. … Because an activist would be chomping at the bit to use this wonderful opportunity,— Graham said.

“You understand that America is bigger than the Bronx and bigger than South Carolina.

“Your record as a judge has not been radical by any means. … But your speeches have been disturbing, particularly for conservatives. Those speeches, especially for me, suggested gender and racial affiliations.

“You have been very reassuring here today and throughout these hearings that you are going to try and make the difference between judges— and activists, he said.

Although Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) allowed Republicans to not only finish their second round of questions but to hold a third round, GOP Senators appeared to have little appetite for continuing to hammer away at a handful of Sotomayor’s speeches that Republicans had tried to use as evidence of her liberal bias.

For instance, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) used much of his third-round question period as an opportunity to bring the Obama administration’s economic policies into the debate. Coburn warned that, “In 10 or 15 years, we may not be able to pay your salary— because of “run away— spending policies, and asked Sotomayor whether she thought the Supreme Court should “rein in— Congress and the administration.

Even Sessions, who has been one of Sotomayor’s most aggressive critics during this week’s Judiciary hearings, appeared to take a slightly less confrontational tone Thursday.

“I believe we’ve met our goal. As I said in the beginning, we had a goal of this being a fair and effective hearing, and I think we’ve done that,— Sessions said.

A GOP aide involved in the party’s efforts acknowledged that Republicans hadn’t been able to knock Sotomayor off her game or make any headway in building opposition to the nomination. But this aide noted that Republicans have done a remarkably better job going on the offensive against this nominee than they have done with other judicial and executive nominations — particularly the February collapse of the GOP’s opposition to Attorney General Eric Holder’s nomination.

“The fact that it took until Thursday morning for anyone to say it’s over’ is an accomplishment,— the aide said.

The success of the GOP’s broader effort to use Sotomayor as a foil to attack Democrats and Obama on a broader, philosophical battle field is less clear. Although ostensibly focused on Sotomayor, Republicans seemed intent on using their questions — and the entire confirmation process — as a way to speak to their conservative base and try to reignite the culture wars that helped fuel their control of Congress through much of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the GOP is expected to ask Leahy for a one-week delay on the vote on the nomination. Leahy announced Thursday that he would hold a vote Tuesday. Under committee rules, any Member can force a week delay in the vote — and a senior GOP aide indicated such a request would be forthcoming. Requesting a delay is “pretty much standard practice now,— the aide said.

Democrats are intent on voting on Sotomayor’s nomination before the recess, and leaders expressed confidence Thursday that she would receive bipartisan support when the full Senate votes.

If confirmed, Sotomayor, 55, would become the first Latina and third female justice to serve on the high court. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge would replace retired Justice David Souter.