WASHINGTON - The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday he doesn't foresee a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, even though he thinks her legal philosophy should be closely examined.
"The nominee has serious problems," Sen. Jeff Sessions said in a nationally broadcast interview. "But I would think that we would all have a good hearing, take our time, and do it right. And then the senators cast their vote up or down based on whether or not they think this is the kind of judge that should be on the court."
"I don't sense a filibuster in the works," the Alabama Republican said, after President Barack Obama's call for the Senate to install his history-making choice of the 54-year-old Sotomayor to succeed Justice David Souter on the high court. She would be the first Hispanic justice to serve there.
Sessions and Sotomayor have spoken by phone, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday. Sotomayor also spoke with Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic chairman of the committee that will oversee confirmation hearings. Additionally, Sotomayor called party leaders Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Gibbs said. She will start visiting senators next week.
The GOP faces an uphill battle in defeating the New York-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents, but Republicans are promising a thorough and perhaps lengthy hearing process that delves into her record and judicial philosophy.
Democrats hold 59 votes in the Senate, more than enough to confirm Sotomayor but not quite enough to stop a vote-blocking filibuster if Republicans should attempt one. Still, seven Republican senators currently serving backed Sotomayor's 1998 nomination to the appeals court covering New York, Vermont and Connecticut, and she was first nominated to be a federal judge by Republican President George H.W. Bush.
Sessions was among several Republicans who opposed her when she came before the Senate as a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1998. On Tuesday, he said: "We ought to look at her record fresh."
Any Republican effort to block Sotomayor's confirmation could be risky for a party still reeling from last year's elections and struggling to gain back lost ground with Hispanics, the fastest-growing part of the population and one that is increasingly active politically.
Sotomayor's personal story and her academic and legal credentials earn her respect from all quarters, but conservatives see plenty to criticize in her rulings and past statements. They describe her as a judicial activist who would put her feelings above the Constitution.
The White House and its allies, including Hispanic groups with broad reach into communities throughout the country, are readying a major push to persuade more GOP senators to back her confirmation.
A coalition of liberal groups calling itself the Center for Constitutional Values launched a television ad Wednesday touting Sotomayor as principled, fair-minded and independent. The ad, which will air on broadcast and cable networks, overlays Obama's voice with pictures of Sotomayor, and is intended to frame public perceptions of the judge.
Sotomayor would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the court and just the third in its history. She would replace liberal Justice David Souter, thereby maintaining the court's ideological divide. A number of important cases have been divided by 5-4 majorities, with conservative- and liberal-leaning justices split 4-4 and Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the decisive vote.
Born in the South Bronx, Sotomayor lost her father at a young age and watched her mother work two jobs to provide for her and her brother. Her path has soared ever since: Princeton University and Yale Law School, then positions as a commercial litigator, federal district judge and appellate judge.
Sotromayor said, "I am an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences."
Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, called Sotomayor's nomination "a monumental day for Latinos."