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GOP senators tone down Sotomayor criticism

Republican senators on Sunday avoided joining those in the party using racially charged criticism against President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Republican Senate leaders won't call U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist. But they're fine with Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich playing the race card to rile up the out-of-power party.

Republican lawmakers and officials are cobbling together a strategy to oppose Sotomayor, an appeals court judge and the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court. While some of Sotomayor's past comments could pose a challenge for President Barack Obama's nominee, elected leaders are navigating a tricky question of how to object without alienating the nation's fast-growing — and increasingly politically active — Hispanic population.

For now, it appears Republican lawmakers will urge respect. But they'll allow talk-show host Limbaugh to call Sotomayor a "racist" and former House Speaker Gingrich to say she's a "Latina woman racist."

The two-sided strategy would allow Limbaugh and Gingrich — who hold tremendous sway among the Republican faithful — to do the political attacks while those facing election can avoid potential backlash if they derail a historic nomination.

"I definitely think we need to have the respectful tone, and we need to look at the record," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Hispanic-heavy Texas. "We need to have the responsibilities that have been put on us by the Constitution taken very seriously."

The Senate's Republican leaders have pieced together a strategy that recognizes they don't have the votes to block Sotomayor. Combing over her record on the federal bench ahead of confirmation hearings and questioning whether she would be unbiased in her decisions on the high court, they have watched quietly as Limbaugh and Gingrich have attacked Sotomayor.

"She brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court," Limbaugh said on his radio program last week.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday refused to criticize that remark, although he said it doesn't represent his view.

"Look, I've got a big job to do, dealing with 40 Senate Republicans and trying to advance the nation's agenda," said Republican McConnell. "I've got better things to do than be the speech police over people who are going to have their views about a very important appointment, which is an appointment to the United States Supreme Court."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who similarly said he wasn't going to baby-sit conservative commentators.

"I think that she is a person who believes that her background can influence her decision. That's what troubles me," said Sessions of Alabama. Although he would prefer that they not call Sotomayor a racist, he said, "people have a free right to speak and say what they want and make the analogies that they want."

Nomination has drawn fire
Sotomayor, nominated Tuesday to replace Justice David Souter when he retires, suggested in 2001 that her experiences as a Latina influence her judicial decisions. The White House has said she likely regrets her choice of words and has stood by her nomination.

Obama wants Sotomayor's confirmation hearings to wrap up before Congress leaves for summer vacation in August. McConnell and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Democrat running the Judiciary Committee, said they would not be boxed in by a White House timeline.

"I will meet my timetable," Leahy said, adding his could be different from Obama's plan.

Hutchison and McConnell appeared Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." Sessions and Leahy spoke to NBC's "Meet the Press."