What's Ahead for Sotomayor?

After President Obama announced her nomination for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor admitted she had some jitters.

"I was just counseled not to be nervous. That's almost impossible," the New York judge said to laughter at the White House last Tuesday.

After Sotomayor finished speaking, Vice President Joe Biden leaned in and told her, "I told you. Piece of cake, piece of cake."

Sotomayor got through that speech and her first week as Obama's first Supreme nominee with minimal damage, and White House officials believe she passed the early tests with flying colors.

But now comes the next stage, when Sotomayor starts her meetings on Capitol Hill to kick off the process that could make her the first Hispanic and only the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court

The White House has put together a team, lead 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 Committe, will also play a significant role in the process.

While past administrations brought in a "gray-beard" Washington wiseman to serve as the public point person for the nominee, Sotomayor and the Obama team will lean heavily on Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is a veteran of the Judiciary Committee and from Sotomayor's home state.

Ed Gillespie, who helped guide nominees John Roberts and Sam Alito through their confirmation process in 2005, said the first week in the life of a Supreme Court nominee is the most challenging period of the confirmation process.

"The nominee will as is custom and tradition ... go dark essentially, other than meetings one on one with the senators. And that's for the nominee, sometimes they like to be out responding to some of these stories, rumors, charges, allegations, but that's not really in the nominee's interest," he said.

Gillespie and others who have been involved in Supreme Court nominations said that with all of the noise from the outside interest groups and pundits, it is important to remember that the critical audience is the 18 members of the Senate Judiciary committee and the 100 members of the Senate.

"Broader audience doesn't matter as much; let the White House people deal with that," Gillespie said.

So who gets to "deal with that"? Cue Stephanie Cutter, who left her job as an adviser to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to head up the team that will shape the White House's message through the confirmation process.

Cutter, a seasoned Democratic political operative, brings her experience from coordinating the Democrats' opposition to Roberts and Alito in 2005 and has close ties to the Senate.


"Stephanie knows the Senate and she knows the leading Democratic senators. But she also has a real institutional sense for the rhythms of the Senate and the give and take that goes on between the two sides," said one Democratic party official. "She has a good bulls*** detector on what is political posturing for posturing sake."

Sotomayor Works the Hill

Sotomayor's first critical tests will happen this week when she starts her meetings on Capitol Hill, but so far, all indications are that she will receive a friendly welcome.

Sotomayor begins the process of navigating the often tricky halls of the Senate, led by Schumer, who is "somebody who obviously has been around a number of court confirmations," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs said that Sotomayor has already reached out by telephone to key Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Ranking Member Jeff Sessions.

On Tuesday Sotomayor will meet with Reid, Leahy and Sessions, and a meeting with McConnell is being scheduled. She is likely to then start working her way through the members of the Judiciary Committee.

The meetings could take weeks, and while they may seem like an opportunity for Sotomayor to sell herself to senators, in fact it is the other way around, according to veterans of the confirmation process.

The meetings are more about senators speaking their mind and outlining for Sotomayor their own judicial philosophies. But she could get hints of the lines of questioning she will face in her confirmation hearing.

"Mostly these meetings are really as much or more about listening to the senators than necessarily sharing all your inner most thoughts," Gillespie said. "Judges aren't accustomed to being judged and that's the situation in which they find themselves, Judge Sotomayor finds herself right now."

Sotomayor is still completing the questionnaire from the Senate Judiciary Committee, a 10-page detailed document that she must hand in prior to her public hearing before the committee.

The committee documents ask questions about potential conflicts of interest, such as "Explain how you will resolve any potential conflict of interest, including the procedure you will follow in determining these areas of concern."

Sotomayor is asked to provide financial and past employment information, copies of all her published writings and statements, and her memberships in "professional, business, fraternal, scholarly, civic, charitable, or other organizations."

The White House said the completed questionnaire will be sent to the Senate at some point next week.

Republican Opposition Is Muted, White House Plans Strategic Response

Cutter and her team's job may be easier than expected -- the fight from the right may not be as fierce as they have been preparing for.

So far, 27 Republican senators have issued public statements on Sotomayor's nomination and not one launched an attack.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was the first, and thus far only, Republican senator to say he will vote against Sotomayor's nomination.

"I voted no in 1998," Roberts said to a Kansas radio station, referring to the vote on Sotomayor's nomination to the appeals court. "I did not feel she was appropriate on the appeals court. ... Since that time, she has made statements on the role of the appeals court I think is improper and incorrect." Conservative interest groups are looking at the Sotomayor confirmation as a way to raise money, rally dispirited supporters and push their agenda. They may wind up disappointed by the muted opposition from Republican senators who could use the summer hearings as a "teaching moment" or a way to lay the groundwork for opposition to future nominees.

Republican Leaders Concerned About Alienating Hispanics and Women

Sotomayor may be simply enjoying the honeymoon phase of her nomination. The real mudslinging is still to come.

So far, Republican leaders are concerned about pushing too strongly lest they alienate Hispanics and women -- two key voting blocks that they have had trouble with in recent elections.

As a result, Democratic officials say the Republicans are backed into a corner with the Sotomayor nomination.

"The Republicans only have so many options," said one party official. "They can't generate enough votes on an up or down vote, so their approach so far has been, 'Hold your fire early and see where the center of gravity is as things move on in the process.'"

Democratic officials say that because of the strength of the nominee, there isn't a feeling in the White House that it needs to react to everything that a Republican senator or interest group says about Sotomayor.

But last week, the White House did step in to try and nip in the bud a growing controversy over a Sotomayor quote from 2001.

In a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law that year, Sotomayor said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh were quick to pounce on those comments and characterize them as racist.

After days of insisting that it was necessary to read Sotomayor's entire speech in order to understand she didn't mean anything offensive, the White House admitted that she would choose her words differently if giving that speech today.

"I'm sure she would have restated it," Obama said Friday. "But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay that she wrote, what's clear is that she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about the struggles and hardships that people are going through, that will make her a good judge."

Gibbs said, "I think she'd say her word choice in 2001 was poor."

About her use of the word "better," Gibbs said, "I think if she had the speech to do all over again I think she'd change that word."

The White House may be choosing its battles, but it is being proactive in its cheerleading of and rallying support for Sotomayor.

Calling her nomination "a home run," Vice President Biden sent out an e-mail to the 10 million subscribers on the Obama campaign's mailing list asking for supporters to sign a petition indicating they "Stand with Sotomayor."

Biden, a veteran of six Supreme Court confirmation hearings as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that his experience taught him that "the debate of the coming weeks and months will be shaped by the public response in the next few hours and days."

"It's critical that the Senate and the public clearly see where the American people stand," he wrote. "In these crucial early hours, let us leave no doubt about the people's support for this extraordinary nominee."

Obama: Confirm Sotomayor by August Recess

The White House has made it clear that it wants a confirmation vote by the Senate's August recess.

President Obama wants Sotomayor on the bench when the next court term begins in October and wants her to have August and September to familiarize herself with the cases and get settled into the new job.

Republicans have indicated that they are not in any rush to wrap the confirmation process up and want to take the time to give Sotomayor's record a "fair and thorough examination," as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said.

"Senate Republicans will treat Judge Sotomayor fairly. But we will thoroughly examine her record to ensure she understands that the role of a jurist in our democracy is to apply the law evenhandedly, despite their own feelings or personal or political preferences," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

That is fine, says the White House, but that does not mean it will take until September to bring her nomination to the Senate floor.

"I think the president believes there is ample time to get a fair and honest hearing. He understands the important role the Senate plays to advise and consent, especially something as important as a Supreme Court nomination," Gibbs said.

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