Gun-shy GOP urges attacks on nominee

In public, Senate Republicans have kept their distance from conservative attacks on Sonia Sotomayor — but behind the scenes, they have encouraged activists to keep their crosshairs trained on the Supreme Court nominee.

Lanier Swann, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told a private meeting of conservative activists Wednesday to keep up their pressure on Sotomayor.

“Swann told us she wanted to encourage all of us in our talking points and that we’re having traction among Republicans and unnerving Democrats,” said an attendee of Wednesday’s weekly meeting hosted by Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

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“The point was we should keep it up,” said the source. “She told us at this meeting to put our foot on the pedal.”

A second source who attended the meeting confirmed the account. Both sources requested anonymity because it was a private meeting.

Swann declined to respond to the characterization of her comments by other people present at the meeting because the discussion was supposed to remain private.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said Swann would not encourage the groups to attack the nominee.

"I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here. Those meetings are off the record, so Lanier won't respond on it, though I'm sure she wouldn't be calling for attacks," Stewart said.

Norquist, who spoke to The Hill late Wednesday at the request of McConnell's office, said that Swann was encouraging conservatives to keep up their fire on the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, not Sotomayor.

"It was all about how Gitmo is getting incredible traction and was separate from her coversation about how pleasant the Supreme Court nominee was when she visited [McConnell's] office," Norquist said.

But two sources who attended the meeting said that explanation was absurd and insisted there was no doubt that Swann was encouraging conservatives to continue their harsh criticisms of the nominee.

On Tuesday, in front of the cameras, Republican leaders smiled and held cheery photo-ops with Sotomayor for her first day of courtesy visits to the Senate.

And most rank-and-file Senate Republicans have held their fire, not partaking in the sharpest criticism being directed by conservatives at the nominee. Some Senate Republicans have gone so far as to rebuke conservative critics such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and radio host Rush Limbaugh for calling Sotomayor a “racist” and “reverse racist.”

But behind the scenes, the Senate GOP leadership has encouraged conservatives to keep up the barrage.

Conservatives have blasted Sotomayor for a range of statements and rulings, such as her off-hand remark that the “Court of Appeals is where policy is made” and a speech suggesting that a “wise Latina” has better judgment than a “white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Some have claimed that President Obama nominated her primarily because she is a Hispanic woman and others said she would be biased against the wealthy.

To be clear, however, Swann did not encourage conservative critics to accuse Sotomayor of being a racist. Limbaugh and Gingrich did not attend the meeting.

Speculation has grown that Sotomayor could win confirmation easily — a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee told The Hill she could attract as many as 75 votes.

Democrats control 59 seats, and Republican strategists have warned Senate Republicans against alienating Hispanic voters, a growing bloc of the electorate, by showing knee-jerk opposition to her nomination.

But it appears that the GOP leadership doesn’t want to give Obama an easy win on his first Supreme Court appointment.

One conservative activist said a few Senate GOP staffers have said that their bosses could not be expected to attack Sotomayor right out of the gate and that “we would be on our own for a while.”

A GOP leadership aide told The Hill earlier this week that Senate Republicans wanted to “maintain credibility throughout the [confirmation] process” to explain the relative lack of criticism aimed at Sotomayor from the Senate.

Another Senate GOP aide said that “there really isn’t much daylight” between Senate Republicans and vociferous conservative critics off of Capitol Hill, explaining that lawmakers and outsiders have different roles.

When Obama nominated her last week, conservative activists off of Capitol Hill immediately accused Sotomayor of being a liberal, activist judge with a political agenda.

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“Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important than the law as written,” said Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network. “She thinks that judges should dictate policy, and that one’s sex, race and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench.”

Republican senators, on the other hand, have been careful to offer Sotomayor a warm and welcoming reception.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, set the tone for Senate Republicans early, rebuking Gingrich and Limbaugh for their attacks on Sotomayor.

“I think it’s terrible … This is not the kind of tone any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent,” Cornyn told National Public Radio.

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, called on his colleagues Tuesday to hold off from criticizing Sotomayor.

“The one thing that I wanted to say at this point is this: There’s already been a lot said about Judge Sotomayor. I think we need to hold our fire until we examine all of these opinions and writings,” Kyl told reporters at a Tuesday press conference.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, appeared with Sotomayor at a friendly photo-op in his office Tuesday. He later characterized their private conversation as “animated,” “engaging” and enjoyable.

McConnell gave Sotomayor a warm welcome later in the day as photographers snapped away.

McConnell: “It’s my pleasure to welcome the judge here to my office for our first meeting. And we’re going to have an opportunity to discuss some of the issues that have arisen and the process for going forward with the nomination.

“Again, I want to congratulate you on your nomination.”

Sotomayor: “Thank you, sir.”