Venturing into a tradition of protocol and politics, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor prepared Monday to greet the senators who will decide her judicial future as control of her Supreme Court journey shifts to Capitol Hill.
One week after President Barack Obama introduced her to the nation, Sotomayor on Tuesday begins private, informal meetings with key Senate leaders of both parties. So begins the choreographed march the White House hopes will land her on the nation's highest court, perhaps for decades to come.
Quietly but aggressively, a White House team loaded with confirmation veterans is working daily to help Sotomayor and promote the narrative that Obama began: a seasoned federal judge who overcame hardship as a youngster and would deliver justice that reflects respect for the law but an understanding of real life.
Republicans, though, plan to push Sotomayor about whether she would put her own views above the law and rule as an "activist."
Sotomayor was at the White House on Monday, consulting with White House attorneys and going over her as-yet-delivered questionnaire to the Senate. Her response to the document — an extensive survey of her life, public statements, rulings and political activities — is expected to be completed soon.
The judge herself is staying mum in public, as is custom. News photographers were allowed to cover her White House visit Monday, but not reporters.
Barring a huge surprise, she is expected to be confirmed. Democrats control 59 seats in the Senate, where a majority vote is needed for confirmation.
On Tuesday, Sotomayor is expected to visit top senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee; and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the panel's top Republican. She's also slated to meet with the No. 2 Democrat and Republican, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and to lunch privately with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a Judiciary member who's her unofficial chaperone during the confirmation process.
The roughly half-hour, closed-door meetings — known as "courtesy calls" — are as important for the courtly tone they set for the beginning of the Senate's debate on Sotomayor as for the few moments of candid conversation they offer senators and the nominee. A more substantive and freewheeling discussion of her record and past will come with the impending release of the detailed questionnaire, which will likely yield fodder both for her supporters and detractors.
Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She would replace retiring Justice David Souter.
Obama wants the Senate to confirm her before its monthlong August vacation.
Rhetoric versus timetable
Leahy on Monday stepped up his calls for a quick set of Judiciary Committee hearings, saying the sessions are Sotomayor's only opportunity to respond to harshly worded criticisms lodged against her by prominent Republicans like talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Both have branded Sotomayor a racist for comments she made in 2001 in which she said her decisions as a "wise Latina" judge would be superior to those of a white male. Limbaugh on Friday compared choosing her to tapping a former Ku Klux Klan leader for the job.
In a conference call Monday with reporters, Leahy said: "I'll give everyone plenty of time to read all her cases and prepare for it. But I'm not going to sit around and wait forever and just have these attacks go on, be unanswered." His remarks followed his comments Sunday, when he warned in a nationally broadcast interview that the rhetoric against Sotomayor could result in his stepping up the timetable for her confirmation hearings.
Democrats are hoping the incendiary remarks by some high-profile Republicans outside Congress will enhance their chances of getting GOP senators, who have been much more tempered in their comments about Sotomayor, to agree to a swift timetable for her confirmation, with hearings beginning as early as the first full week of July.
But McConnell seemed to suggest that was unlikely.
"Judge Sotomayor has a long record and it will take a long time to get through it," the GOP leader said Monday on the Senate floor, noting that 70 days passed between when President George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and the start of hearings on his confirmation.
"I'm confident our Democrat colleagues will treat us fairly and allow us to do it in the right way," McConnell said.
When Alito was named, Senate aides had virtually no preparation for delving into his record, since he was hastily chosen to replace Harriet Miers, the White House counsel whom Bush initially picked for the seat. Several previously scheduled holiday vacations also delayed Alito's hearings, Democrats point out.
By contrast, John Roberts was confirmed as chief justice 72 days after he was nominated — almost precisely the time between Obama's announcement of Sotomayor's name and his late-July target for the final vote.