WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday paid her first Capitol Hill visits to key senators who'll be voting on her confirmation. She found Democrats enthusiastic and Republicans wary and somewhat skeptical.
While Republican senators vowed to ask tough questions about affirmative action and judicial activism, however, few were willing to rule out backing the 54-year-old federal appellate judge.
Nominated last week by President Barack Obama to replace retiring Justice David Souter, Sotomayor (pronounced so-toe-my-YOR) spent the day in lengthy private conversations with senators that lasted about half an hour each.
They quizzed her on the controversies that have surfaced in recent days, notably her views on abortion rights and her 2001 comment that a "wise Latina woman" could reach "a better conclusion than a white male."
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Democrats, who control 59 Senate seats, emerged largely satisfied and unsurprised by what they heard.
"I don't think she's vulnerable at all,' said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
"Is there a serious impediment to her nomination? I don't see it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a committee member who met with Sotomayor.
Republicans on the committee were less enthusiastic.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he thought that the "wise Latina" comment "was not an isolated incident," while Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, thought that "some of the things that have been said are troubling."
However, because senators historically are reluctant to oppose Supreme Court nominees whom they regard as qualified, and because an important political constituency has embraced Sotomayor as the first Hispanic nominee, there was little outright opposition to her.
"Nothing's a deal breaker at this point," said Cornyn, who heads the Republican Senate re-election committee.
Even Sotomayor's sharpest critics conceded that she's likely to be confirmed.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., pointed to her 2005 comment at a Duke University Law School conference that the court of appeals is "where policy is made."
He said, "Judicial activism . . . it doesn't get any worse than that."
The ultimate Senate vote, however, likely this summer, "is just a done deal because she's a woman and a Hispanic," he said.
Sotomayor began her day visiting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who afterward declared her "the whole package," and then she went to see Leahy.
The Judiciary Committee chairman, who'll largely control the confirmation process, was almost defensive after his sessions with Sotomayor, blasting Republicans that some attacks "are among the most vicious I've ever seen by anybody."
Among his complaints: radio host Rush Limbaugh branding Sotomayor a "reverse racist" and "an affirmative action case extraordinaire." Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, an anti-immigration activist, calling the National Council of La Raza, a prominent Latino activist group, "a Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses," and then adding, "she's a member."
Republican senators haven't engaged in that kind of rhetoric, and they've urged supporters to tone down their comments.
Leahy lamented that Sotomayor's only chance to answer such charges is at the hearings. "They can't answer charges. They can't speak out while they're a nominee," he said. "It's a lot different than those of us who run for elective office who are in a debate a day."
One charge that Leahy tried hard to dispel, though, involves Sotomayor's comment in a University of California lecture years ago that "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experience, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
The senator said the judge explained to him that "What she said was, of course, one's life experience shapes who you are. But ultimately and completely — and she used those words, 'ultimately and completely' — as a judge, you follow the law.
"There's not one law for one race or another. There's not one law for one color or another. There's not one law for rich and a different one for poor. There's only one law."
Perhaps the most telling comment from a senator came after Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, finished his meeting with Sotomayor. He urged Leahy to slow the confirmation process — the two will discuss that Wednesday — and wouldn't say that he was fully satisfied with Sotomayor's answers or her record.
However, Sessions noted, "I'm very impressed with her knowledge, her experience, her energy level. It was a delight to talk with her."
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