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Senate Will Debate Sotomayor's Nomination

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

We're moving into the unpredictable part of any Supreme Court nomination. Up to now it's followed a pattern: A president introduces his choice to the world, the nominee smiles, the cameras flash. Presidential advisors insist the nominee is highly qualified, with few if any blemishes. Now members of the opposition party check to see if any blemishes are discovered. President Obama says he wants to see the Senate confirm Sonia Sotomayor before they take their August vacation. Republicans, though, are saying they're in no rush.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: President Obama waited for lawmakers to clear out of town for a Memorial Day recess before announcing his pick for the next Supreme Court justice. That likely made it easier for the White House to keep the media spotlight focused yesterday on Judge Sotomayor. But as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted, the U.S. Senate will soon be sharing that spotlight.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): Starting next week I think that you'll see the nominee go and make her case to members of the judiciary committee and then to the Senate - members of the Senate as a larger body.

WELNA: Senate Republicans, though, have made it clear for weeks they want to take their time considering the president's first Supreme Court pick. Here is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier this month.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): There's a certain amount of time that needs to occur between nomination and confirmation so that you can review the record thoroughly and we have two recent examples of having done it in an appropriate way.

WELNA: McConnell cited the nomination sagas of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, which took 72 and 92 days respectively, but Democrats hold a decisive 12 to seven edge over Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. That makes it easier to dictate a confirmation timetable of their choosing. Republicans are nonetheless determined to scour Sotomayor's record, including this remark which she made at a Duke University Law School conference four years ago.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (Supreme Court Nominee): Court of Appeals is where policy is made, and I know, and I know this is on tape, and I should never say that because we don't make law, I know. Okay, I know. I know. I'm not promoting it, and I'm not advocating it, I'm - you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: Conservatives point to Sotomayor's comment that the appeals court makes policy as damning evidence she thinks judges should makes laws. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, says that remark's simply been overblown.

Senator AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): She was joking around at a law school and people have said a lot more outrageous things than that at law schools. So I just don't view this as the defining moment of her life.

WELNA: Republicans have also seized on President Obama, saying he wanted a nominee who showed empathy. Earlier this month, Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Jeff Sessions issued this warning.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): And we shouldn't be here in Congress saying that it is perfectly all right to have judges that don't allow their feelings to influence their decision-making. I think that's a dangerous thing.

WELNA: Eight Republicans who voted to confirm Sotomayor as a circuit court judge still serve in the Senate, including Maine's Susan Collins. She says her vote this time is no sure thing.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I did vote to confirm her as an appellate judge in 1998, but she's ruled on many, many cases since then. So I look forward to looking at her decisions, to reading a lot of them personally, and to talking with her before making a judgment.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): I think Republicans will oppose her at their peril.

WELNA: That's New York Democrat Charles Schumer yesterday on MSNBC. Schumer says Sotomayor's nomination, which he is to shepherd through the Senate, poses a thorny problem for a party that lost ground with Hispanics in the last election.

Sen. SCHUMER: In a certain sense this is a referendum on the future of the Republican party because she is a moderate, she has had a lot of experience. She does represent diversity, and they're going to have real trouble opposing her, and if they let the five percent at the extreme right oppose her and lead them to oppose her, it's going to hurt them.

WELNA: Democrats are also hoping that by the time Sotomayor's nomination reaches the full Senate, Minnesota's Al Franken will be the 60th member of their caucus, and 60 votes are what you need to foil a GOP filibuster.

David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.