Senate Democratic leaders implored Republicans Wednesday to join them in voting to confirm Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor next week, warning the GOP would face painful political consequences for opposing the judge in line to become the first Hispanic justice.
"I just think that their voting against this good woman is going to treat them about the same way that they got treated as a result of their votes on immigration," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said of Republicans. He was referring to the electoral losses -- including among Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate -- the GOP suffered after its spirited opposition to measures that would have given some illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status.
Most Republicans have come out against Sotomayor, the 55-year-old federal appeals court judge President Obama chose in May to replace retiring Justice David Souter, although a handful have said they will support her.
The impending vote poses a dilemma for some Republicans, who are torn between a desire to please their conservative base by opposing Sotomayor but worried that doing so could bring a Hispanic backlash. The decision was made more difficult in recent days for some Republicans and Democrats from conservative-leaning battleground states after the National Rifle Association, which has a loyal and politically active base of members, announced that a vote to confirm Sotomayor would count against senators in the group's annual candidate ratings. The NRA calls Sotomayor "hostile" to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
Since the NRA's threat, no Republican or conservative Democrat has come out publicly to support Sotomayor.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he was "disappointed" that more Republicans hadn't sided with him in support of Obama's nominee. His panel's vote Tuesday to send Sotomayor's nomination to the full Senate was nearly along party lines, with just one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, breaking with the party to back her.
Reid and Leahy appeared at a Capitol Hill news conference with a crowd of activists representing civil rights, Hispanic and women's groups, among others who are enthusiastically backing Sotomayor, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project and educated in the Ivy League before serving 17 years on the federal bench.
"She knows the law. She knows how to apply the law. She understands the role of a judge. She understands the role of the courts. There is no mystery about this nominee," Leahy said. "Hers is a truly American story, and what a story, and what a model this is going to be for others in America."
Most Republicans, though, say they don't trust Sotomayor to keep her personal prejudices and opinions out of the courtroom. Burr said in a statement that the judge has "let her personal beliefs cloud her judgment." DeMint said she "has not inspired confidence that she will consistently base her decisions on our Constitution and laws," citing in particular her stance on gun and abortion rights.
GOP leadership aides suggest there's little political ground to be lost for their party in opposing Sotomayor, pointing to polls that indicate Obama has slipped substantially among Hispanic voters in recent weeks, notwithstanding his selection of the judge. They note that Democrats vehemently denied they were being anti-Hispanic during their successful efforts in 2003 to block Honduran-born Miguel Estrada, named by GOP President George W. Bush, from a seat on the federal bench.
Brent Wilkes of the League of United Latin American Citizens said his group was targeting wavering Republicans with local and national campaigns designed to pressure them to vote for Sotomayor, and promised "repercussions" for GOP senators who vote no.
"It appears to me that they're deciding to play racial politics," Wilkes said. He singled out Texas Sens. John Cornyn, the head of his party's Senate campaign committee, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's seeking her party's 2010 gubernatorial nomination, as Republicans who "made a big mistake" in deciding to oppose Sotomayor, adding:
"They will feel the heat from our community."