By Alexander Bolton - 06/02/09 08:22 PM EDT
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday launched her campaign to convince senators she’s worthy of a lifetime appointment, and at least one GOP member of the Judiciary Committee acknowledged her confirmation is all but a foregone conclusion.
But the Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, who requested anonymity, said the final tally will depend on her performance in the months ahead.
The Republican lawmaker noted that the GOP will focus on Sotomayor’s temperament while on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and said if she lets her temper flare during confirmation hearings, it would erode GOP support.
Sotomayor worked to dispel any concerns in her meetings on Tuesday, and received a positive review from arguably the most important GOP member controlling her fate.
“She was engaging and animated and we had a good discussion,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, at a news conference after their private meeting. “I enjoyed it, and I think she did.
“Temperament is a factor in a judge’s qualifications — I think that’s pretty clear in most of the evaluation process as you go through, but I don’t think that it’s been established that she has a bad temperament,” he added. “I think that’s something that evidence may show as time goes by, one way or the other.”
Earlier in the day, Sotomayor explained to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) her controversial comment from 2001 that suggested “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences” has better inherent legal judgment than “a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Leahy left satisfied with her answer. (Read the questionnaire from Leahy and Sessions that Sotomayor must fill out.)
“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.
Leahy lauded Sotomayor as a judge in the mold of retiring Justice David Souter, “with a great mind” and “impeccable” credentials, and blasted conservative critics such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) who have seized on that comment to accuse her of being a racist.
Leahy said the attacks might prompt him to speed up the schedule for hearings and give the nominee a chance to respond to the charges. Leahy said the committee would hold hearings no sooner than July but said it would be “irresponsible” to delay the proceedings until September.
The White House said Tuesday it would like the hearings to start by mid-July.
Sessions said he would prefer that the hearings take place in September, noting the high court’s fall term does not begin until Oct. 5. Leahy and Sessions are planning to meet Wednesday morning to hammer out a schedule.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pronounced himself “absolutely convinced” of Sotomayor’s qualifications and said “she made clear in that meeting that she is a person who is going to be a fantastic, superb Supreme Court justice.”
Sotomayor also met on Tuesday with Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The Third Branch Conference, a coalition of conservatives including David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; and Gary Bauer, president of American Values, signed a letter to GOP leaders urging them to consider a filibuster of Sotomayor. The effort was organized by Third Branch Chairman Manuel Miranda.
But Republican leaders, even those who voted against Sotomayor’s nomination to the 2nd Circuit in 1998, pledged to keep an open mind.
“That was then and this is now,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). “I’m willing to look at this nomination afresh and look at all of the cases, as we’ve been suggesting, and make a judgment after we have all the facts.”
Eleven sitting Republican senators voted against Sotomayor in 1998: McConnell, Sessions, Kyl and Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), James Inhofe (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Pat Roberts (Kan.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).
Seven sitting GOP senators voted for Sotomayor a decade ago. They are Hatch and Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).
Gregg and Lugar said they were not certain whether they would support her again and that it would depend on a review of her record and her answers in meetings.
“I’m looking forward to the hearing and visiting with her,” said Lugar.
Hispanic groups are planning campaigns in the home states of several GOP senators to pressure them to support Sotomayor.
Republican strategists say their party must proceed carefully to avoid giving President Obama a bigger advantage among Hispanic voters, a gain that could help him significantly in 2012.
McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, saw the GOP’s share of Hispanic votes drop precipitously after a vicious intra-party fight over immigration.
“Language and tone matter,” said Danny Diaz, who served as communications director for the Republican National Committee in 2008.
“The way that this [Supreme Court nomination] debate is conducted is being watched very closely by an absolutely critical segment of the electorate, and we will be judged in the eyes of many by how we handle this nomination.”
J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.