Senate GOP focuses on Sotomayor, healthcare

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) signaled Monday that the GOP is readying for battle over Sonia Sotomayor and healthcare, temporarily leaving behind national security issues.

McConnell said he spoke with President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee during last week’s congressional recess and assured her that she would be treated “fairly and respectfully” during the confirmation process.

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At the same time, however, the Kentucky Republican warned Senate Democrats that the GOP would insist on a full debate, and that Sotomayor’s “past statements and decisions have raised some understandable concerns.”

For the first time in nearly two months, McConnell sidestepped the issue of the Guantanamo Bay prison in his opening remarks. The minority leader raised the issue in his floor speeches nearly 20 times before Democratic leaders bowed to pressure last month and denied the Obama administration $80 million in funds to close the prison until a plan is presented to transfer the occupants.

The GOP had been emphasizing national security issues, an area where they tend to fare better than Democrats, but Sotomayor’s nomination has turned attention to domestic issues.

A 2001 Sotomayor speech has drawn notice in recent days for statements in which she suggested that Latinas could be more effective judges than white males.

McConnell was among 11 sitting Senate Republicans who voted against Sotomayor’s nomination to the 2nd Circuit in July 1998, and said Monday that he remains skeptical of her impartiality.

The GOP leader’s floor speeches at the start of each work session are notable for the glimpses of strategy they provide, suggesting where the conference intends to invest its energy in the coming weeks.

“The last time Judge Sotomayor came before the Senate for confirmation, I voted against her nomination precisely out of a concern that she’d bring pre-existing personal and political beliefs into the courtroom,” McConnell said. “Many of the same concerns I had about Judge Sotomayor 11 years ago persist … Judge Sotomayor has a long record, and it will take a long time to get through it.”

The other 10 GOP senators who opposed Sotomayor in 1998 were Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), James Inhofe (Okla.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), John McCain (Ariz.), Pat Roberts (Kan.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.). Sotomayor’s nomination was approved by the full Senate on a 67-28 vote.

McConnell also warned Democrats on Monday that Senate Republicans would lock down against any healthcare legislation that infringes on Americans’ right to make their own choice of doctors and plans.

“Based on some of the things we’ve been hearing out of Democrats in Washington in recent weeks, Americans have good reason to be concerned about what the future holds for healthcare,” he said. “The biggest concern is the talk of a government takeover of healthcare. Americans suspect that what’s being sold as a government ‘option’ would soon become the only option.”

Democrats are also preparing for a prolonged congressional struggle over healthcare. Party leaders distributed talking points to House and Senate members during last week’s recess, urging them to reassure constituents that Democrats will improve, not threaten, the current system, in which most people value their employer-provided care and want to preserve their choice of doctors and plans.

The Senate’s talking points also took pains to point out the fiscal necessity of reform, arguing that climbing costs are choking the country’s businesses.

The debate over the possible closing of the Guantanamo prison is certain to re-emerge later this summer, as Democrats have publicly said they will revisit the issue of funding in future budgets.

Likewise, a senior GOP aide cautioned that the issue of Guantanamo “isn’t over.”

“The administration still hasn't presented a plan. And they will likely be looking for funding to close the facility during the regular appropriations process in the next few months,” he said. “So McConnell, along with other GOP and Democratic senators, will continue to talk about the issue and continue to press the administration to come up with a plan.”