WASHINGTON – Sonia Sotomayor's success at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing has some Republicans in a tight spot, with conservative senators forced to weigh the political calculus of voting on the court's first Latina nominee, who also is the first liberal nominee in 15 years.
With Democrats solidly behind the 55-year-old Sotomayor, three days of grueling questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee gave Republicans no new or damaging ammunition to use against President Barack Obama's first high-court nominee.
By the end of the week, the GOP's leader at the confirmation hearings, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., showed no interest in stopping or even delaying her confirmation vote as the country's 111th Supreme Court justice.
"I look forward to you getting that vote before we recess in August," said Sessions, despite calls from some conservatives to delay the vote until after the Senate returns in September from its summer break.
Sotomayor has overwhelming if not unanimous support among the Senate's 58 Democrats and two independents — and is likely to win a number of votes among the 40 Republicans as well. "Each senator will make up their own mind," Sessions said.
Democrats, sensing a big win, immediately scheduled a committee vote Tuesday, starting the clock on a schedule for a final confirmation vote before the Senate leaves Aug. 7 for a four-week summer break as well as before the next Supreme Court argument on Sept. 9.
That quick committee vote Tuesday is unlikely to happen — "I don't think we'll have an approval to go forward," Sessions said — but a party-line GOP vote against her also seems unlikely, given the praise Sotomayor got from a couple of GOP senators. A committee vote the following week would still keep Sotomayor's confirmation on the schedule Obama set when he nominated her May 26.
"Your judicial record strikes me as pretty much in the mainstream of judicial decision-making," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: "You have, as a judge, been generally in the mainstream."
The underlying politics are dicey for Republicans. They must be careful to keep faith with constituents like National Rifle Association members who oppose her, yet avoid offending the Hispanic voters who represent the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
If confirmed, Sotomayor would become the first justice appointed by a Democratic president in 15 years, and the hearings were as much a prelude for future Supreme Court fights as a battle over the judge herself.
Sotomayor didn't give the GOP anything to use to get them out of that quandary. She parried all their questions on hot-button issues like guns and abortion rights and defended her speeches that have been faulted as showing bias.
She was unequivocal, however, in her statements on what kind of justice she would be. "I do not permit my sympathies, personal views or prejudices to influence the outcome of my cases," she told senators.
That doesn't mean she'll get all of the Republicans' votes. GOP Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky announced that he would vote against Sotomayor within minutes of her leaving the witness stand.
Republicans repeatedly criticized Obama's past assertion that he wanted a justice with "the quality of empathy," and Sotomayor disavowed a statement Obama made when he was a senator that some decisions would be determined by "what is in a judge's heart."
They also pressed Sotomayor repeatedly on her 2001 statement that she hoped a "wise Latina" would usually rule better than a white male, drawing expressions of regret from the nominee, who said her words were poorly chosen.
Republicans, expressing concern that she would bring bias to the court, gave a speaking role at the hearing to Frank Ricci, a white New Haven, Conn., firefighter whose reverse discrimination claim was rejected by Sotomayor and two other appeals court judges. He complained that the ruling showed a belief "that citizens should be reduced to racial statistics" but declined when given the chance to say Sotomayor's nomination should be rejected.
Her panel's ruling was overturned last month by the Supreme Court she hopes to join.
Democrats devoted some of their question time to allowing Sotomayor to make her closing arguments to the panel that will cast the first votes on her confirmation.
Asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., what historians would make of her, Sotomayor said, "I can't live my life to write history's story." Then she added, "I hope it will say I'm a fair judge, I was a caring person and that I lived my life serving my country."
And Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., gave her a challenge to take to the Supreme Court's conservative wing. "Battle out the ideas that you believe in, because I have a strong hunch that they are closer to the ones that I would like to see adopted by the court," said Specter, a Republican turned Democrat.