By J. Taylor Rushing and Sam Youngman - 06/09/09 12:55 PM EDT
Senate Democrats and Republicans escalated their war of words over the announced confirmation schedule for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday afternoon, with the GOP sowing doubt and Democratic leaders on defense.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) started the free-for-all earlier in the day by announcing the committee would launch confirmation hearings on July 13 with a final Senate vote on Aug. 6.
The tug-of-war over timing is critical because the Court starts its fall session in October, and the Obama administration wants Sotomayor to have time to begin by then. However, Democrats also have another motive — an able defense for her, since delaying a vote until September would allow her critics a month in which to attack.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and ranking Judiciary Committee member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) took to the Senate to blast the proposed schedule, saying that Democrats decided the schedule "unilaterally," without consulting the GOP, and that they did not learn of the dates until informed through media reports.
McConnell issued a veiled threat that the GOP may abandon efforts at cooperation.
"The Democratic majority is proceeding, in my view, in a heavy-handed fashion, completely unnecessarily, and is basically being dismissive of the minority's legitimate concerns for a fair and thorough process," McConnell said. "Because of what our Democratic colleagues are doing and the way they are doing it, it will now be much more difficult to achieve the kind of comity and cooperation on this and other matters."
Senior Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former chairman, also noted that the FBI and American Bar Association haven’t had time to finish their review of Sotomayor. And Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) suggested splitting up the process by having confirmation hearings before the August recess and a final vote after Labor Day.
But Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defended Leahy and his schedule for Sotomayor, saying that Chief Justice John Roberts had the same amount of time even though the Senate had to contend with tens of thousands of additional pages of background mid-way through the process.
Reid also said he spoke with President Obama on Tuesday morning and that Obama said a delay until September would create the longest period of time between nomination and confirmation for any Supreme Court candidate in U.S. history.
Reid said he and Obama reviewed all of the objections raised by McConnell in a letter last month, and found them “baseless.”
“There is no reason this can’t be done,” Reid said. “There is plenty of time.”
Leahy, in a floor speech shortly after noon, called the schedule “reasonable” and “in line with past experience,” and that waiting any longer on President Obama’s nominee would “unduly delay consideration of this well-qualified nominee.”
Leahy said a full, final Senate vote on Sotomayor on Aug. 6 would allow for confirmation just before the Senate breaks for its congressional recess.
Senate Republicans had asked that Leahy hold off scheduling hearings until after the August recess so they can have more time to review her record. They have seized on Sotomayor’s past statements, most notably her comments that a “wise Latina with the richness of her experiences” has better inherent legal judgment that a white man, in demanding more time to scrutinize past speeches, writings and legal opinions.
But Leahy said Sotomayor “deserves the opportunity to go before the public and speak of her record, especially if some have mischaracterized her record or misstated her record. The only place she can speak is in the hearing.”
Leahy said the Aug. 6 date conforms to previous timelines, noting that Chief Justice John Roberts received his confirmation vote 72 days after he was nominated.
“In selecting the date, I’m trying to be fair to all concerned,” Leahy said. “I want to be fair to the nominee, to allow her the earliest opportunity to respond to assassinations made about her character … The schedule is, I think, both fair and adequate — fair to the nominee, but also adequate to the United States Senate to prepare for the hearing and Senate consideration. There’s no reason to have needless and unreasonable delay.”
The White House on Tuesday continued to push hard for Sotomayor's confirmation to the Supreme Court, rolling out some of the nation's high-profile prosecutors to offer testimony on her behalf.
Vice President Biden was joined by New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, President of the Police Executive Research Forum and Miami Chief of Police John Timoney and President of the National District Attorneys Association Joseph Cassilly, who all praised President Obama's nominee as a former prosecutor who "gets it."
In an event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Morgenthau, who recruited Sotomayor to the New York district attorney's office, noted that in her tenure there the judge was "immediately recognized as a rising star.” He praised her toughness and fairness when she later became a judge.
"Nobody intimidated Sonia Sotomayor," Morgenthau said. "And she quickly got a reputation as a judge who would stand her ground and couldn't be pushed around by anybody."
Biden thanked the lawmen for their "moxie" in standing up for Sotomayor, telling them "she has your back."
"Throughout this nominating process I know you'll have her back," the vice president said.
Sotomayor, who fractured her ankle Monday, was scheduled to continue her one-on-one meetings with senators on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
This story was updated at 4:45 p.m.