Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans walked a political tightrope Tuesday in questioning Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, determined to raise the racial issues that have angered their party’s base but wary of further alienating Hispanic voters.
Republicans focused on the liberal jurist’s most controversial rulings and statements, asking whether she would let her personal views and experiences as the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants affect how she would decide affirmative-action cases and other issues that may come before the high court.
But even Democrats said the Republicans seemed relatively restrained in the tone of their questions, cognizant that their bitter legislative battle against illegal immigrants over the past two years has hurt their party with a large and politically potent part of the national electorate that will be an increasingly powerful factor in future presidential and congressional elections.
Democrats, on the other hand, saw the hearings as an opportunity to further strengthen their party’s support among Hispanics, the largest and fastest-growing minority faction in the country and one that gave Barack Obama 67 percent of its vote in last year’s presidential election. Several lost no time in attacking Republicans for lobbing what some Democrats characterized as offensive questions at President Obama’s nominee.
“I think so far [the Republican members of the committee] are doing OK, but they do need to be careful as they hammer on with the ‘wise Latina woman’ comment. She has answered that pretty clearly and eloquently and, I must say, every time that comes up and Republicans harp on it, every Latino I have spoken to thinks it is offensive the way they choose to vilify her, taking this one comment out of context instead of focusing on her impeccable qualifications and her expansive three-decade-long career that includes every aspect of the law,” said Maria Cardona, a veteran Democratic strategist on Hispanic outreach issues.
“So while Republican senators have been respectful and restrained, unfortunately for them, their latitude for questioning her is much diminished given the knee-jerk and offensive remarks of many on the conservative right when she was first announced,” Mrs. Cardona said.
But some Democrats, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, were clearly irritated by Republicans who kept focusing on her remarks in past speeches that someone of her background - “a wise Latina woman” - could reach a “better” decision than others who had not had the same life experiences. Republicans also focused on Mr. Obama’s remark that he chose her because she was someone who would look at judicial cases with “empathy.”
“I think what they … they keep asking the same question over and over again, they’re going to keep getting the same answer over and over again,” Mr. Leahy told CNN.
While Republicans are taking Judge Sotomayor’s liberal positions, rulings and remarks seriously, they know that her likely confirmation will not change the ideological direction of the court. She is filling the seat left vacant by the retirement of Justice David Souter, one of the court’s four reliable liberal votes.
“The Republicans have at least as difficult a task at hand or more so than Democrats did with now-Chief Justice [John G.] Roberts [Jr.],” said Israel Klein, a Democratic strategist with the Podesta Group.
“The Republican members of the Judiciary Committee are picking up on a few cases where they believe she is out of the mainstream of judicial thought, but I don’t think that they have created a molehill out of an anthill yet,” he said.
Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, told the Weekly Standard on Tuesday that Republicans have nothing to fear by opposing Judge Sotomayor’s nomination.
Asked whether Republicans will pay a political price with Hispanics for opposing Judge Sotomayor, Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, said, “I think Hispanic voters are Americans and want what’s best for America. I don’t think Republicans will hurt themselves, if it’s a philosophical opposition.”