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Sotomayor Begins Meeting With Key Lawmakers

June 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor met with key lawmakers Tuesday to explain her record and make her case for confirmation. The Hotline's Amy Walter offers insight.
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JIM LEHRER: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor began making her case for confirmation today. She met with Senate leaders to explain her views and to defend some of her statements.

Judy Woodruff has our lead story report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Judge Sotomayor’s marathon day of meetings kicked off with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He praised President Obama’s choice for the high court, saying, “We have the whole package here.”

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: We could not have anyone better qualified. And then, of course, I’m somewhat biased. I think that your life story is so compelling, that America identifies with the underdog, and you’ve been an underdog many times in your life, but always wind up being the top dog. And so I very much appreciate that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From there, the nominee met with the man who will oversee her confirmation hearings, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Afterward, Leahy said he asked about this much-discussed remark by Sotomayor in 2001 at the University of California, Berkeley: “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.”

Radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have charged those words show that Sotomayor is a racist at the core.

The president said last week he’s sure the judge would have “restated” her sentiment, given the chance. But he dismissed the controversy as “nonsense.”

And Senator Leahy said today he questioned the judge and found her answer “very satisfactory.”

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: 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. There’s not one law for one race or another; there’s not one law for one color or another; there’s not one law for rich and a different one for poor. There’s only one law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Leahy also said confirmation hearings should begin sooner rather than later to let Sotomayor answer “vicious attacks.”

But the top Republican on the committee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said hearings should wait until September, allowing a full review of Sotomayor’s 17 years on the bench. Later, he said his meeting with the judge left him with questions.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: We discussed the moral authority of law and judges and the need for the American people to feel that those judgments are based on the law and the facts. And she discussed that forthrightly, I thought, you know, in an effective way.

And, of course, the question is, what is the law? How does a judge find the law? And what approach to statutory construction do they utilize?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said today he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to Sotomayor. He voted against her confirmation as a federal appeals judge.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: I had some concern that she would be a judicial activist when I opposed her nomination 11 years ago. But that was then, and this is now. I’m willing to look at this nomination afresh and look at all of the cases, as we’ve been suggesting, and make a judgment after we have all the facts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McConnell and other Republicans also heard today from a coalition of more than 145 conservative leaders. In a letter, they urged a filibuster to block any quick vote and instead allow a lengthy debate. They said, in part, “We call on you to lead so that the confirmation vote, when it comes, honestly displays the differences between Republicans and Democrats to the American people.”

President Obama has said he would like the Senate to confirm Sotomayor before taking its month-long August vacation.

Do the meetings matter?

Amy Walter
The Hotline
What you're hearing from Democrats is, you know, the longer that this drags out, this gives Republicans more opportunity to try to shoot this down.

JIM LEHRER: For more on Judge Sotomayor's day at the Capitol and where the confirmation process stands, I'm joined by Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's political daily.

Welcome back, Amy.

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how important are these meetings that she has with senators, so-called courtesy calls? Do they really matter?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think they really do matter, now that -- what we saw on the tape is, there are the pictures of the two sitting down, and it's very staged. But when the doors close and the reporters leave, there are real discussions that happen.

Looking through reports of what happened back in the Alito and Roberts confirmation hearings, each of those men had 80 meetings with individual senators. Now, sometimes they met with one senator two times or more, but there are a lot of these meetings, and a lot of the sort of pre-hearing gets hashed out during these things, so they are very important.

The first day, of course, is really to set the tone. As we go through the process, through the rest of these hearings, we may hear more about the process and may hear more about specific issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So based on what you heard today, did anything get clarified?

AMY WALTER: No, everything you showed there. We're still sort of in the same place. But what you see is now that Republicans are back in town, they're trying to fill that vacuum that activists and a lot of conservative Republicans -- you pointed out Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich -- were filling while they were on recess.

They want to come back in and get this message back in place, which is, "We may disagree with her on judicial philosophy, we may disagree on specific issues. This isn't about race. This isn't about, you know, personal issues. We're going to do this based on the facts."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there is this division that's already developed between the Republicans and the Democrats over the timing. You had the chairman, Senator Leahy, saying it's irresponsible to wait any longer than a couple of months to get this completely done. The Republicans disagree.

AMY WALTER: Well, this is one of those issues where it's good to be in the majority. When you are in the majority, you get to decide.

Now, the other side can say, "Well, I don't like it," and they can try to push back, but the bottom line is, at least at this point, there doesn't seem to be a reason that Leahy has to go along with what Republicans are asking for.

The real issue -- and what you're hearing from Democrats is, you know, the longer that this drags out, this gives Republicans more opportunity to try to shoot this down. Obviously, the longer it drags out, it gives more opportunity for other issues to come up or for a mistake to happen, you know, in one of these hearings, et cetera, one of these meetings or something.

So they want to get -- Democrats, of course, want to get this done as quickly as possible.

Assessing the polls

Amy Walter
The Hotline
She is at the same place right now with the American public as Roberts and Alito were back at this point in their confirmation process, so 54 percent of Americans saying [...] that they think she should be confirmed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Republicans have a point, though, when they say she's been on the federal bench for 17 years, she's got 3,600-some-odd cases for them to look at.

AMY WALTER: That's right. And the White House comes back and says, "Well, you know, based on what we've seen from past confirmation hearings, 51 days is the average. We're on track with that. You've had time to look through these. We will absolutely have a process that respects that."

Now, I think for Republicans right now, I don't think they can afford to look like they're obstructionists. Again, this is a party that has a 30 percent approval rating compared to a president with 60 percent.

But you're right. If we move along in this process and see that there are unanswered questions, Republicans could still make this case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there were two public opinion polls that we saw today about her. Tell us, do they matter? Are they significant? And what bearing will they have on what happens?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think the most important thing is, she is at the same place right now with the American public as Roberts and Alito were back at this point in their confirmation process, so 54 percent of Americans saying -- this is in the Gallup poll, USA Today-Gallup poll, saying that they think she should be confirmed. So, right now, that suggests that voters out there think that dragging out this process would not be beneficial.

Do you think that her views are mainstream or too extreme? Forty-nine percent say extreme. In Alito's case, back in 2006, 52 percent thought they were mainstream, so basically 49 percent think she's mainstream, 52 percent thought Alito was mainstream. Making the case that she's out of touch, at least right now, is going to be difficult.

Two audiences for Republicans

Amy Walter
The Hotline
When you get in the battle of the bully pulpit, right now, Barack Obama is going to win that. President Obama is going to win that debate over congressional Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this letter, signed by 145 conservatives, to the Republican leadership in the Senate, is that a real division among conservatives? How do you see it?

AMY WALTER: I really don't think so. I mean, I think the option of filibuster and the reason why even some senators are trying to sort of keep the door open is, in politics, the number-one rule of thumb is never box yourself in, right, never say we won't ever do this or we will always do that. Just keep it sort of vague just in case something develops.

But this is just -- it goes back to the problem, Judy, that you and I have talked about for a long time now for Republicans, which is, they have two audiences now. They have the conservative base that basically disagrees with everything that Barack Obama stands for and wants the party to do the same and then the rest of the public that right now 54 percent of whom think should, you know -- they should go ahead and put Sotomayor onto the Supreme Court.

So that's that balancing act that they're constantly having to fight, which is, you know, for some of these folks, looking at very competitive primaries, they can't afford to alienate that base. For a national party, though, they have to expand beyond it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in many ways, laying down a marker at this point?

AMY WALTER: That's right. And that's why you can still get a vote against her. If you're a Republican right now thinking about your future, either you're going to run for president in 2012, you're thinking about a primary challenge, you can still have a vote against her.

It will definitely be a marker for a lot of conservative groups in the same way that voting against Alito and Roberts was for Democrats and liberals.

Filibustering it, though, is a very different story. And, again, when you get in the battle of the bully pulpit, right now, Barack Obama is going to win that. President Obama is going to win that debate over congressional Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, the process continues, timing still up in the air. Amy Walter, thank you.

AMY WALTER: Thanks, Judy.