Sonia Sotomayor Makes the Rounds on Capitol Hill

Though Sonia Sotomayor made it through her first week as President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee relatively unscathed, today marks the beginning of the the next stage of her confirmation process: Meeting lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Sotomayor arrived on the Hill under tight security just after 10 a.m. ET today for meetings with leaders of both parties, the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold her confirmation hearings and the senators from her home state of New York. It's the start of a process that could make her the first Hispanic and only the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

First up, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada praised Sotomayor, calling her "the whole package" in an appearance before reporters this morning before their short meeting. Reid praised her academic and career achievements, he added that "we could not have anyone better qualified."

"I think that your life story is so compelling, that America identifies with the underdog," Reid said. "And you've been an underdog many times in your life," he said, but now she's "the top dog."

Sotomayor then continued on to her next meeting with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

During their private meeting, Leahy addressed one of the issues that has become a rallying point for conservatives, asking Sotomayor what she meant when she said in 2001 that her decisions as a "wise Latina" would be better than those of a white male.

"What she said was of course one's life experience shapes who you are, but ultimately and completely, and she used those words, ultimately and completely, as a judge you follow the law," Leahy said.

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said he was "very impressed" with Sotomayor during their meeting and assured that she will get a fair hearing. But he indicated that he's reserving judgment on her because he'd like to more fully examine her judicial record and hold more extensive discussions with her.

With conservative pundits and activist groups charging that Sotomayor will be an "activist judge," Sessions declined to elaborate on his impression of her, saying the meeting was confidential and that she will have an opportunity to address those criticisms during her confirmation hearings.

But he did comment on voices from the right who have assailed Sotomayor for her past comments on race and life experience. Among the most vocal have been former House speaker Newt Gingrich and radio host Rush Limbaugh, who last week branded Sotomayor a racist and demanded that she withdraw.

"I will not use that kind of language," Sessions said, but added that "on some of the questions that come up, like affirmative action or those sort of questions, people who feel strongly about it use strong language." He noted that it has not been elected officials who have made the most controversial remarks, a detail that Leahy had also cited earlier.

Leahy had called the attacks on Sotomayor among the "most vicious" he's seen.

The White House is making every effort to prepare her for any challenges ahead. It has put together a team, led by Cynthia Hogan, chief counsel to Vice President Biden, to guide Sotomayor through the confirmation process, with mock hearings and coaching. Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff and former chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, will also play a significant role in the process.

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