Senate GOP Has Plan for Supreme Court Fight

Messaging Strategy Is in Place, Ready to Go

Posted May 3, 2010 at 5:55pm

Senate Democrats and Republicans are bracing for a Supreme Court confirmation fight that could begin this week as President Barack Obama zeroes in on his nominee to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

Democrats were largely waiting for the White House to act, while Republicans have put together a preliminary game plan to shift the debate away from the specific nominee and toward a broader fight over Obama’s vision of the judiciary.

“Republicans have had staff-level meetings on coordination and implementation of our Supreme Court strategy,” a senior GOP aide said, explaining that Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) will lead the charge while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership apparatus will provide support. The Senate Republican Communications Center, in particular, will undertake “an intensive effort to do rapid response, television and radio booking and online/new media outreach,” according to the aide.

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) — both of whom serve on the Judiciary Committee — are also expected to play significant roles in the GOP’s initial response to the nominee, as will other members of the committee.

According to Senate GOP aides familiar with the strategy, Sessions will question Obama’s commitment to “limited government” and “strict constitutional construction” while charging that the president’s view of how judges should act lends itself to “activist judges” looking to set social policy.

Sessions will “focus on the idea … that the American people are concerned with the size of government [and] concerned with the reach of government” and on a general distrust of “Washington elites” using the courts to pursue an agenda, a GOP aide explained.

Republicans will also use Obama’s lower court nominees — particularly judges such as Goodwin Liu, whom Obama has nominated to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — to paint the president’s selections as fitting into his “empathy standard.”

Unlike during the nomination hearings for Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year — when Obama had made few nominations — Republicans believe they can use his record to make the case that the nominee “fits into the construct that the president spoke about with the empathy standard,” a leadership aide explained.

Sessions has already begun to preview his messaging strategy. In an interview with ABC News on Friday, Sessions argued, “What I’m hearing from my constituents is a cry that Washington is losing all recognition that it is a government of limited, delegated powers, and that it is assuming roles that go far beyond anything the governed ever thought that they would be doing.”

“You have the fundamental question: Is this what the framers had in mind when they created a limited government and created a Commerce Clause?” he added.

Once the nomination is announced, GOP Judiciary Committee staff will immediately begin combing through the individual’s record and putting together a nominee-specific messaging plan, aides said.

“A lot of this really depends on the nominee,” a GOP aide said, noting as an example that if the person has a record of “extreme” social positions, “that plays out differently than if their most fringe aspect is on the war on terror.”

Senate Democrats said the White House, as it did during the Sotomayor hearing, is expected to take the lead in setting the messaging agenda and that once Obama makes his announcement, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will take the lead on the Hill in pushing the nomination.

But for now, White House officials are tight-lipped on when Obama plans to announce his selection, regularly citing a May 26 deadline.

But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that he wouldn’t rule out an announcement this week. And the president has been giving signs that a handful of contenders are now under a higher level of consideration for the court slot.

Obama last week held his first known face-to-face interviews with three potential nominees: Solicitor General Elena Kagan and federal appeals court judges Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas. Vice President Joseph Biden also interviewed Thomas in a separate meeting.

The president has informally spoken to others on his list of about 10 candidates to replace Stevens. At least two people whose names have been floated — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — on Sunday shot down the idea that they were interested in the seat on the high court.