Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor won her first public pledges of support from Senate Republicans and one prominent GOP opponent, after a smooth performance at her confirmation hearings that has placed her firmly on track to become the high court's first Latina and the first Democratic-named justice in 15 years.
Three centrist Republicans announced they'd support Sotomayor even as the Senate's minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he'd vote no. The split was a vivid reflection of the divisions in the GOP as the party faces a tricky vote on Sotomayor, wary of alienating its conservative base but equally afraid to anger Hispanic and women voters.
GOP Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Senate's most senior Republican, Mel Martinez of Florida, its lone Hispanic Republican, and Olympia Snowe of Maine all announced they'd vote for Sotomayor, praising her qualifications and her testimony at four days of Judiciary Committee hearings this week.
"I was pleased that Judge Sotomayor repeatedly recognized in her responses this week that 'the job of a judge is to apply the law' rather than independently make policy, and that it is the law, rather than one's own sympathies that 'compels conclusions in cases,' " Snowe said in a statement.
McConnell planned a speech Monday in which he'll say the 55-year-old appeals court judge's past statements demonstrate an "alarming lack of respect for the notion of equal justice," and question her ability to separate her sympathies and prejudices from her decisions.
McConnell joins other GOP conservatives who are lining up firmly against Sotomayor, including Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who announced Friday that he'll vote no, citing her position on gun rights and comments he said indicate "a tendency toward judicial activism." But with solid backing from Democrats, who enjoy a lopsided majority, and a growing number of Republicans, there's virtually no doubt the judge will be confirmed as the 111th Supreme Court justice.
Republicans have said they won't try to block or even delay a vote to confirm her, which is expected in early August.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that neither he nor any GOP senator he knows of is interested in holding up the vote. The panel is likely to cast the first votes on Sotomayor's nomination in late July, although Democrats were pushing for a committee vote as soon as Tuesday.
Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a member of the committee who had hinted strongly that he would support Sotomayor, made it official Friday with a statement in which he said he'd vote for her and urge colleagues to do the same.
Sotomayor "displayed intellect, restraint and judicial demeanor" at her hearings, Specter said.
Three days of grueling questioning before the Judiciary panel gave Republicans no new ammunition to use against the nominee, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project, educated in the Ivy League, and rose through the legal ranks to spend 17 years on the federal bench.
Two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, came away calling most of her judicial record "mainstream," although both said her rulings — along with her four days of Senate testimony — were strikingly at odds with her past comments.
Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who created a stir and political difficulties for his party by suggesting a remark by Sotomayor was "racist" shortly after she was nominated — acknowledged Friday that she came across in the hearings as "dramatically more moderate" than she had before. Still, he said it would be four or five years before it was clear whether she'd be a justice who would please conservatives or one who won confirmation by "fundamentally misleading the Senate."
Gingrich helped stir the biggest controversy surrounding Sotomayor's nomination, over a remark she made in 2001 and echoed in several other speeches she's given over the years — that she hoped a "wise Latina" would usually reach better decisions than a white male.
Pressed by Republicans about the remark during her confirmation hearings, Sotomayor expressed regret, saying she'd been misunderstood. Sotomayor also parried virtually all senators' questions on hot-button issues like guns and abortion rights, and insisted she would be an impartial justice.
"I do not permit my sympathies, personal views or prejudices to influence the outcome of my cases," she said.
Bennett, Lugar and Snowe are among the current GOP senators who voted for Sotomayor when she was confirmed to New York's 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 1998. The others were Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
This time, 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.
Sotomayor's hearings were as much a prelude for future Supreme Court fights as a battle over the judge herself. Republicans criticized Obama's assertion — made before nominating Sotomayor — that he was looking for a justice with "the quality of empathy," and an earlier statement when he was a senator that some decisions depend on what's in a judge's heart.