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Supreme Court Battle: Graham Turns Up Heat

Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) has emerged as the GOP’s leading critic of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, arguing that Republican Senate opposition to her installment should be expected given how President Barack Obama treated former President George W. Bush’s high court picks.

Graham is a Judiciary Committee member and a key player in the Senate’s vetting of Sotomayor. He met with the New York appeals court judge Wednesday as part of the Supreme Court hopeful’s week of courtesy calls on Capitol Hill.

After their session, Graham refused to say what they talked about but told reporters that “nothing has changed— his concerns with her record. Graham has been critical of Sotomayor’s 2001 statement in which she suggested that a Latina woman would reach better conclusions than a white male. Her statement prompted conservatives to charge her with racism, an attack that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) apologized for Wednesday.

Although Graham said he would not use the word racist to describe Sotomayor, he indicated that her past statements raise concerns that, as a Supreme Court justice, she may not treat white males fairly. “Being an average, everyday white guy, that doesn’t exactly make me feel good,— Graham said.

Graham also said that while he and other Republicans have previously argued court nominees should be judged on their qualifications rather than on political or ideological issues, the rules have changed thanks to Senate Democratic opposition to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Obama supported an unsuccessful effort in 2006 to filibuster Alito’s nomination, Graham argued, adding that it would put Republicans at a disadvantage if they did not use that same standard when deciding whether to support Sotomayor’s nomination.

“I’m not doing the country any good looking back playing a game of tit for tat. But I’m not going to put my party at a disadvantage if this is the way the game is played,— Graham said.

That argument echoes the position taken by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the weekend. McConnell, asked whether he could rule out a filibuster during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,— also pointed to Obama’s support for the failed Alito filibuster. The GOP leader said that despite his personal objections to filibusters of judicial nominees, “the precedent [was] firmly set— by Democrats during the Alito fight. “That’s a fight that I lost.—

Republicans, led by Graham, are trying to put to practice a new strategy in taking on Sotomayor. Unlike in the past when GOP Senators argued that nominees should be judged on their qualifications and not on their judicial philosophy, Republicans now say philosophy is fair game because of Obama’s approach to Alito and Roberts.

That could put Republican Senators in a difficult position politically, however. During the Bush era, Republicans argued that a president has the prerogative to pick Supreme Court nominees who fall in line with their ideological thinking and that Senators should base their votes on the fitness of the nominee to serve on the bench.

But with Democrats now controlling the Senate and White House, Republicans have been forced to recalibrate their strategy. Graham, for his part, was one of 14 Senators who came together in 2005 to hatch a deal to ensure Bush’s then-stalled court picks got up-or-down votes. The bipartisan group of 14 didn’t deal with Supreme Court nominees but set a key precedent for ensuring fair consideration of presidential court picks.

Even before Obama nominated Sotomayor last week, Republicans were prepping to make the case that his opposition to Alito and Roberts had essentially rewritten the rules of the confirmation game, GOP leadership aides said, adding that that argument would continue to be a central piece of Republican message throughout the process.

Sotomayor made her second round of visits with influential Senators on Wednesday, meeting with Judiciary Committee members including Graham, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Sotomayor also met with two Republicans who voted in 1998 to confirm her nomination to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Sens. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Despite the Republican strategy to use Obama’s previous handling of the Supreme Court nominations against Sotomayor, few believe her nomination will fail. Moderate Republicans and most, if not all, Democrats are expected to support her installment later this summer or in the early fall.

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