The GOP's Initial Tactic on Sotomayor: Play for Time

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Judge Sonia Sotomayor

Correction Appended: May 27, 2009

It's no wonder that so many Republicans reacted to President Barack Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court Tuesday by arguing that the confirmation process couldn't be rushed: the GOP knows it has been dealt a bad hand, and it's playing for time.

Time, after all, is what the party needs if it has any hope whatsoever of uncovering some kind of silver bullet — buried somewhere in the 17 years of Sotomayor's federal judicial writings — that could help sink her nomination. Challenging a candidate first nominated to the bench by President George H.W. Bush and twice confirmed by the Senate, after all, would be hard enough. But at a time when the party has already alienated Hispanic voters, the GOP knows it has to tread very carefully in dealing with the first Hispanic candidate for the nation's highest court, especially a woman of Puerto Rican descent with an inspiring Horatio Alger story of her own. (See pictures of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.)

"Opposing this pick right now is really tough politically, especially since Republicans had two bites the last time around and picked two white males," said John Ullyot, a GOP consultant who has advised on judicial confirmations. "Do they really want to be put in a position of either voting against or questioning in a hostile way somebody who has a good record and will be seen by Latinos as a very important and symbolic pick? There's a disconnect between groups that expect really giving a zinger to a nominee like this and where Republicans want to be politically."

But if moderate or just plain pragmatic Republicans are worried about putting off Hispanics, they are also under enormous pressure from conservative activist groups — Rush Limbaugh called Sotomayor and Obama "reverse racists" — to not let her go through without a real fight. "President Obama carried through on his threat to nominate a Justice who would indulge her policy preferences and biases on the bench," says Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a group opposing Sotomayor's candidacy. "I'm going to continue to do all I can to expose Sotomayor's view of judging and why she's not a good pick for the court." (Read "Judge Sonia Sotomayor Headed for Easy Supreme Court Nomination.")

For the moment, at least, all the GOP can seemingly agree on is to try to drag out the proceedings and hope that Obama's vetting team has once again missed something. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that Obama has agreed to a John Roberts timetable: it took 74 days from the day the Chief Justice was nominated to swear him in. By that yardstick Sotomayor could be confirmed before Congress begins its summer recess on August 7, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid said he would prefer. Republican senators, however, have already indicated they think that could be unrealistic. "We would prefer it be done as quickly as possible however given the breadth and length of her record we're not sure it's possible to meet that deadline," says Kevin McLaughlin, a spokesman for Cornyn. "If we could do it in 74 days that would be awesome but the process has to be thorough and there's a lot of material to get through."

The nomination of Sotomayor comes at a bad time for the GOP. Republicans have only just begun the long process of wooing Latinos burned by the 2005-06 immigration battles. Obama won 67% of Latino votes, vs. John McCain's 31% — enough to help Obama win Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. Hispanics had actually been somewhat disappointed in Obama's Latino-lite Cabinet and his unwillingness to take on immigration reform as a top issue in his first 100 days. But that will probably be forgotten now. The Hispanic community was "thrilled" by Obama's pick of Sotomayor, said David C. Lizárraga, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's board. "She is a role model of strength, focus and discipline and exemplifies the American ethos, proving that anyone in this nation can fulfill their dreams, matching their potential with opportunity," Lizárraga said.

Walking the careful line between pleasing the base and not offending Hispanics will be Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who became the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee when Arlen Specter switched parties last month. Sessions himself was once a Reagan nominee to the federal bench; he was rejected by this same committee — at the time controlled by Republicans — after reports surfaced that he had called the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People "un-American" and had once told a colleague that they "forced civil rights down the throats of people." (See the top 10 Supreme Court nomination battles.)

Given that history, Sessions is surely aware that he cannot afford to become the story by saying anything indelicate. His statement Tuesday reflected just how careful he has to be. "The Senate Judiciary Committee's role is to act on behalf of the American people to carefully scrutinize Ms. Sotomayor's qualifications, experience and record," he said, striking a neutral tone. "Of primary importance, we must determine if Ms. Sotomayor understands that the proper role of a judge is to act as a neutral umpire of the law, calling balls and strikes fairly without regard to one's own personal preferences or political views."

The original version of this story incorrectly stated, based on information supplied by the office of Senator John Cornyn, that it took 92 days from the day Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was nominated to swear him in. It actually only took 74 days for Roberts to be confirmed.

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