Senate Democrats, determined to seat Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court quickly, announced mid-July hearings on her nomination Tuesday in a move that surprised and angered Republicans.
GOP leaders lashed out after Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, announced that he would convene the hearings on July 13 — considerably earlier than Republicans wanted — saying the date presents a "fair and adequate" schedule in line with the timeline for past Supreme Court nominees.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called the Democrats' tactics "heavy-handed" and urged them to reconsider the schedule.
"Let me be clear. ... Because of what our Democratic colleagues are doing and the way they are doing it, it will now be much more difficult to achieve the kind of comity and cooperation on this and other matters that we need and expect around here," McConnell said.
President Barack Obama has urged the Senate to vote on confirming Sotomayor to the high court before it leaves for a congressional recess in August, but Republicans say they need more time to review her nearly 17-year record on the federal bench and that a September vote would provide plenty of time before the court term begins in October.
Leahy said there was "no reason to unduly delay consideration of this well-qualified nominee. She deserves the opportunity to go before the public and speak of her record." He said the hearings will be her first and only opportunity to publicly defend herself against criticism, including conservative charges that she's racist.
"This is a historic nomination, and I hope all senators will cooperate," Leahy said. "She deserves a fair hearing — not trial by attack and assaults about her character."
Republicans were blindsided by Leahy's announcement but cognizant that they have few options short of moving to block votes on Sotomayor or hold up Senate business — both politically unpalatable choices — to delay the timetable. Instead, they complained about the schedule and warned they would press their argument.
"I'm going to insist that we do it right," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who had been in private negotiations with Leahy on a hearing date. "This rush is ill-advised,"
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama was pleased with the schedule.
Leahy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., spoke to Obama by phone Tuesday morning before Leahy went to the Senate floor to announce the hearing date.
Mid-July hearings should allow for a vote on confirming Sotomayor before the August break, Leahy said, "unless people put unnecessary delays" on the nomination. He noted that the timetable roughly matches the one Republicans and Democrats agreed on for confirming Chief Justice John G. Roberts after then-President George W. Bush named him in 2005.
Spat over scheduling
Republicans point instead to the 92 days that elapsed between the nomination of Justice Samuel Alito and his confirmation, and argue that the 3,000-plus rulings Sotomayor has made warrant a much longer lag time than the 300-plus decisions Roberts had written.
The spat over scheduling her confirmation hearings came as Sotomayor was camped out in a Capitol office meeting with a succession of visiting senators, having scrapped plans to go see them in their offices because of a broken ankle.
Sotomayor said she felt great a day after stumbling in the airport while rushing for a flight from New York City to Washington. But the appeals court judge, whose right leg is in a cast and is using crutches, opted to hold meetings in the office of the No. 2 Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, rather than hobble through hallways for the eight visits on her schedule.
She drew good reviews from one Republican she met with, Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida. The Cuban-born senator spoke with Sotomayor in Spanish before news cameras and later said he expected her to be confirmed "with pretty good numbers."
Martinez also came to the judge's defense over her 2001 comment that she hoped a "wise Latina" usually would reach better conclusions than a white male without those experiences.
"For someone who is of a Latin background, personally ... I understand what she is trying to say, which is the richness of her experience forms who she is. It forms who I am," Martinez said. "I think she was using that as rhetoric, but I don't believe that it is part of what she utilizes in her opinions."
Sidestepped some questions
Some Republicans raised serious questions, though, about Sotomayor's positions on sensitive issues. Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said Sotomayor was "unwilling" to say that the Second Amendment granting gun rights was "a fundamental right that applies to all Americans." He also said the judge had sidestepped a question on whether an unborn child has rights, saying she had never thought about it.
"This is not just a question about abortion, but about the respect due to human life at all stages, and I hope this is cleared up in her hearings," DeMint said in a statement.
Obama's team, meanwhile, continued promoting Sotomayor's confirmation. It held an event at the White House to showcase her endorsement by eight national law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Association of District Attorneys.
Conservatives called the event an attempt to falsely portray Sotomayor as a "law and order" judge when in fact, they argued, her record exposed her as the opposite, especially on matters of racial discrimination.
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