WASHINGTON – Republicans’ unflinching opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday drew a partisan line in the sand, signaling that future Barack Obama nominees to the Supreme Court are unlikely to win significant Republican support even if they have solid legal credentials and a moderate record.
By a 13-6 vote, the Democrats and a lone Republican on the Judiciary Committee sent her nomination to the full Senate, where she is expected to easily win confirmation next week because of the large Democratic majority.
The vote reinforced how the nomination process has become a test of party solidarity, with senators wary of voting to confirm a nominee of the president of the opposite party.
Three years ago, all the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee opposed President George W. Bush’s choice of Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the court, even though he, like Sotomayor, had a long and solid record as a judge.
Democrats portrayed Sotomayor as a cautious jurist who would closely follow the law.
But Republicans on the panel – likely to be followed by a large number of their colleagues in the Senate – seemed ready to risk alienating Hispanic voters to make their point that she is more of a legal activist than her record as an appellate judge reveals.
They claimed they had succeeded in setting a new, conservative standard for judging.
“This confirmation process has, in many ways, been a repudiation of activist legal thought,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the ranking Republican. “It will now be harder to nominate activist judges.”
Six of the seven Republicans on the panel – all but South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham – voted against confirming the woman who would be the first Hispanic to sit on the court. They included Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, who represent states with large Hispanic populations.
In recent weeks, advocates of gun rights and opponents of abortion have pressed Republican senators, some of whom initially seemed open to voting for her, to vote no on Sotomayor.
The Republicans have also stayed united in opposing President Obama on many fronts, including the economic stimulus package and overhauling the health care system.
“The Republicans were more nervous about giving Obama a big victory than in further eroding their diminished support among Hispanics,” said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. “The Sotomayor vote signals that (Obama) needs to very, very careful about going any further left with the next nominee.”
Brian Darling, director of Senate Relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the GOP vote “shows that Republicans are willing to put up a fight on the nominations.
“The big question is what’s going to happen in the future. Are Republicans going to band together and fight harder if it’s perceived as a conservative seat being vacated” the next time? “I think this is going to force the president to be more cautious in his next nomination.”
From the liberal side, Nan Aron of Alliance for Justice said the Republican attitude should free Obama to pick a more liberal nominee next time. “The Republicans will not support anyone he sends up. He has nothing to lose by choosing a progressive.”
Some Hispanic leaders said the Republicans could pay a political price for their vote. “The lack of GOP support is profoundly unfortunate,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “I believe Latino voters have developed quite a sophistication over the years and they take note of who is supportive of their causes and community, and who is not.”
Graham, the lone Republican to break ranks with his party, said Sotomayor deserved to be confirmed because she had been a good judge. He also praised Obama for choosing a Hispanic woman to serve on the court. “America has changed for the better with her selection,” he said.
Sotomayor’s ascension would mark the first time in 34 years that the nine-member court has had more than two Democratic appointees.