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Senate GOP Struggles With Sotomayor Strategy

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his GOP colleagues will continue slowly unfurling their critique of President Barack Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court this week even as they look to move past the controversy over conservative charges of racism against Judge Sonia Sotomayor.The confirmation process is still in its infancy, but this week could prove pivotal for Republicans when the nomination fight starts in earnest in the coming weeks.With Sotomayor making the rounds on Capitol Hill this week meeting with Judiciary Committee members and leaders of both parties Senate Republicans continue to be frustrated in their efforts to ratchet down the rhetoric from their right flank.Republicans acknowledge that conservatives particularly former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Rush Limbaugh put the party in a difficult position with their accusations that Sotomayor is a “reverse racist— and with their attacks on the civil rights group La Raza.McConnell had hoped to use the Sunday talk show circuit to launch his Conference’s fight against Sotomayor with appearances on all the major talk shows by GOP leaders including McConnell, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.), National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), as well as Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).The plan was for Republicans to hit the airwaves with a preliminary set of concerns over Sotomayor’s record and with some of her public statements and to keep the comments by conservative activists at a distance while not angering the party’s base.Republicans also are keen to maintain at least the appearance of open-mindedness, and McConnell has pushed his members to not make statements prejudging her until the Senate is further along in the confirmation process.Instead, McConnell and his colleagues spent significant time dealing with the controversy and having to distance themselves from the charges while not rejecting them outright.Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,— McConnell refused to rebuke Limbaugh and other conservatives while also trying to make clear he did not support them. “It is certainly not my view … [but] I’ve got better things to do than be the speech police,— a clearly frustrated McConnell said.Several top GOP aides and strategists over the weekend complained that while they had a strong presence on the weekend talk shows, cable networks and the nightly news shows all but froze out Senate Republicans the only members of the GOP family who will have a vote on Sotomayor’s nomination for much of the week as the controversy over the race issue grew. One source said McConnell’s office pressed for members with strong conservative credentials like Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) to act as the standard-bearers for the GOP’s approach to the confirmation process.But Republicans complained that those overtures to television bookers were largely turned down, and as a result, Republicans are having difficulty getting their message out effectively.Senate GOP aides said McConnell’s plan is to slowly build a case against Sotomayor in the lead-up to the confirmation hearings and that Republicans will use a coordinated strategy to raise new “concerns— over the coming days and weeks.Meanwhile, Senate Democrats will continue to highlight Sotomayor’s personal story and job qualifications to promote her nomination while contending questions about her philosophy are akin to conservatives’ charges of racism.Ironically, conservatives may have inadvertently tipped Senate Republicans’ opening hand to Democrats in attacking Sotomayor for a 2001 speech in which she said she hoped her Latina background could help her be a more effective jurist than a white man.McConnell, Sessions and other Republicans pegged those statements, as well as an affirmative action case she ruled on as a judge on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as the “preliminary concerns— at the heart of their initial message strategy.But because conservatives highlighted the speech almost immediately following Obama’s announcement, Senate Democrats and the White House have been able to put together a defense that relies on similar statements by two stalwarts of the conservative movement Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press— with Sessions, countered Republican complaints by pointing to Alito’s comments during his confirmation hearings that his immigrant background shaped his handling of civil rights complaints.Democrats are expected to mount similar counterattacks on Republicans throughout much of the week, and Sotomayor is expected to try to reframe her comments during meetings with Senators this week.Whether the GOP’s difficult stretch the past six days will significantly affect its confirmation fight is unclear. The confirmation process is expected to last for at least the next two months and could easily slip into September. If Republicans can move past last week’s controversy and bring their right wing to heel, it could end up being a relatively minor bump in the road. But if conservatives continue to give the Senate GOP fits on the Sotomayor nomination and no more skeletons fall out of her closet, Republicans could be in for a difficult summer.

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