The Senate debate over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor turned bitter Wednesday, after Democrats warned the GOP it would pay a steep price for opposing the judge who would be the first Hispanic justice, and a top Republican charged they were playing destructive racial politics.
Majority Leader Harry Reid implored Republicans Wednesday to join Democrats in voting to confirm Sotomayor next week, warning that GOP opposition would bring the same sort of public backlash that followed the party's spirited opposition to measures that would have given some illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status.
"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," said Reid, D-Nev.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the head of his party's Senate campaign committee and a Sotomayor opponent, shot back that Reid and other Democrats were trying to exploit the nomination and "giving cover to groups and individuals to nurture racial grievances for political advantage."
"I don't think it influences people's votes, but what it does encourage is a very poisonous — indeed a very toxic — tone of destructive politics," Cornyn told The Associated Press. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves."
Reid's comments and the heated response they drew highlight the incendiary political dynamics surrounding next week's vote to confirm President Barack Obama's first high court nominee, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project and educated in the Ivy League before spending 17 years on the federal bench. There is little doubt that Sotomayor, 55, will be confirmed with majority Democrats backing her solidly and a handful of Republicans joining them.
But the debate over her nomination has raised tricky questions of identity politics for both parties. Republicans are torn between a desire to please their conservative base by opposing Sotomayor and a concern that doing so could bring a Hispanic backlash. The dilemma is particularly potent for senators from states like Cornyn's where more than one third of the population is Latino.
Democrats, too, risk inviting public ire if they are seen to be using Sotomayor's race as a cudgel against Republicans rather than promoting her based on qualifications and record — particularly in the age of Obama's "post-racial" politics.
The decision on how to vote on her confirmation 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.
Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Jim DeMint of South Carolina announced Wednesday that they both plan to vote "no."
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.
"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, saying 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 Cornyn and fellow Texas Sen. 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."
Cornyn defended his decision, noting that he had been among the first Republicans to publicly fault conservatives who branded Sotomayor "racist." To "say that my vote is based on anything other than a principled opposition to some of her positions is deeply offensive," he said.
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