June 2, 2009 -- 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.
Obama Team Relies on Schumer
While past administrations brought in a "gray-beard" Washington wise man 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.
Sotomayor and Schumer are slated for a lunch meeting today.
But the road to her possible confirmation might not be as smooth as Democrats would like.
Republicans on the Hill have promised a full debate on Sotomayor's nomination, and today a bloc of more than 140 conservative groups encouraged Republican lawmakers to delay the nomination pending a full debate on the Senate floor.
Additionally, GOP leadership and Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wouldn't rule out the possibility of a filibuster when he appeared on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday, saying that "it's really premature to say that or to speculate."
Ed Gillespie, who helped guide nominees John Roberts and Sam Alito through their confirmation processes 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 coming from the outside interest groups and pundits, it is important to remember that the critical audience is the 18-member 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," as Gillespie put it? 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 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."
As Sotomayor begins the process of navigating the often tricky halls of the Senate, she is led by Schumer, who is "somebody who obviously has been around a number of court confirmations," according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Sotomayor's Full Capitol Hill Schedule
In advance of her visits, Gibbs said that Sotomayor already reached out by telephone to key Senate leaders, including Reid, Leahy, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sessions.
Sotomayor's schedule includes meetings those four lawmakers, Schumer, her other home state senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., both important to her future as they are in charge of marshalling votes for their respective parties.
After today's marathon meetings, she is likely to 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 minds 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.
Cutter and her team's job may be easier than expected, as 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."
White House Wants Vote This Summer
The White House has made it clear that it wants a confirmation vote by the Senate's August recess.
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 Sessions has 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 McConnell.
But the White House believes it should not 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.