Republican senators are starting to figure out how they will navigate the racial aspects of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, showing Sunday that they won't be tongue-tied when it comes to the politically tricky subject.
Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic on the high court if confirmed, and just the third woman, and Republicans don't want to appear insensitive to this historic significance during summer hearings.
Yet they cannot sidestep the issue. Sotomayor has assured that race will be an unavoidable topic of debate, with her now-infamous 2001 statement that a "wise Latina woman" would often reach a better conclusion than a white male.
Appearing on all five of the Sunday morning news shows, Republican senators followed a pattern in addressing such controversy.
-- They scolded sharp-tongued conservatives, like radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for calling Sotomayor a "racist." The senators said such language is off limits and should not be used to describe an accomplished and respected jurist.
-- The senators nevertheless called Sotomayor's 2001 statement "troubling," and representative of a mindset that should be explored further during hearings. They also criticized her for ruling against a group of white firefighters who claimed the city of New Haven, Conn., discriminated against them by throwing out the results of a promotion exam after minority firefighters didn't score high enough.
-- Guarding against any criticism of racial insensitivity, Republican senators on Sunday tried to turn the table on Democrats. They repeatedly invoked the case of Miguel Estrada, President George W. Bush's 2001 nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals who withdrew his name after Democrats filibustered his nomination. Estrada was a Honduran immigrant.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued Sunday that Estrada could have made history as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice if not for Democratic opposition. He suggested that Republicans were treating President Obama's Hispanic nominee far better than Democrats treated Bush's Hispanic nominee.
"What you'll see from our side of the aisle during these hearings is members of the Judiciary Committee and senators who are not willing to prejudge or pre-confirm any nominee. ... I might say that's in stark contrast to the way Miguel Estrada was treated, somebody who was on a path to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice," Cornyn said. "I mean, Miguel Estrada immigrated from Honduras. He couldn't speak English, when he was 17 years old, came here, graduated from the two top schools in America, and rose to the very top of the legal profession. And yet, he was filibustered by Democrats who denied an up-or-down vote in the United States Senate."
Cornyn also contrasted the way Republicans are treating Sotomayor with the way Democrats treated Justice Clarence Thomas, who is black, during his confirmation. He said Republicans need to give Sotomayor the "fair hearing" that Estrada and Thomas never had.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, on CNN's "State of the Union," also accused Democrats of opposing an "outstanding Hispanic-American" with the Estrada filibusters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sits on the Judiciary Committee as well, added on "FOX News Sunday" that Estrada was not "very well treated" during his confirmation.
That said, Graham was most vehement in condemning Sotomayor for her 2001 comments on race and called on her to apologize.
Graham said he wasn't buying Obama's attempt to walk back his Supreme Court nominee's controversial statement. Obama said Friday that given the chance Sotomayor would have "restated" that comment, and that she was merely trying to express how her experiences give her perspective on others' hardships.
"She didn't say that at all," Graham countered Sunday, suggesting Sotomayor's statement raises questions about her objectivity.
"What she said is that based on her life experiences is that she thought a Latina woman, somebody with her background would be a better judge than a guy like me -- a white guy from South Carolina," Graham said. "It is troubling, and it's inappropriate and I hope she'll apologize."
Graham said Sotomayor's judicial temperament and philosophy are "in question" and that he's concerned Sotomayor has a record of trying to "get around" laws she doesn't like.
Other Republican senators continued to criticize Sotomayor for those remarks and certain rulings Sunday.
But they assured that Sotomayor would receive a fair hearing, with the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., saying Sotomayor's mix of legal experience is "ideal" for a Supreme Court nominee.
And Sessions and his GOP colleagues made clear that they would not follow Limbaugh and Gingrich in trying to brand her as a racist.
"I don't think that's an appropriate description of her," Sessions said on NBC's "Meet the Press," asking others to refrain from using such "loaded" words as well.
"I don't think she's a racist," Graham said.
Meanwhile, Democrats defended Sotomayor's 2001 remarks, describing them as a simple statement about how life experiences inform decisions.
"As long as you put rule of law first, of course, it's quite natural to understand that our experiences affect us. I don't think anybody wants nine justices on the Supreme Court who have ice water in their veins," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on ABC's "This Week."
Appearing with Cornyn, he disputed Republicans' charges about Estrada and suggested his case does not make for a fair comparison -- especially since he was not a judge when Bush nominated him.
"Estrada was never a judge, so we had no way to judge what his record would be in the best way to judge it, cases that we had ruled on. And so when we asked him questions, he said absolutely nothing," Schumer said. "In fact, Judge Sotomayor has answered more questions on hearings already, because of her two confirmation hearings, than Estrada."