WASHINGTON - Leading GOP senators yesterday offered more subtle criticism of the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court, but passed up the chance to stifle racially charged critiques of Sonia Sotomayor by some fellow Republicans.
The party out of power in Washington is struggling to develop a unified political strategy to oppose the Supreme Court nominee.
Sotomayor, an appeals court judge, already faces scrutiny from conservatives over a 2001 remark that her experiences as an Hispanic woman would lead her to better decisions than those made by a white man. Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has called her a "racist" while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, saying a "Latina woman racist" is unsuitable for the court, has called for withdrawing the nomination.
The Senate's top Republicans didn't disavow those assessments, although they urged different language to oppose President Obama's first nominee to the high court.
Those appearing on yesterday's news shows walked gingerly when it came to criticizing a member of the fast-growing Hispanic population. They risk a potential backlash from their conservative base because Limbaugh and Gingrich hold tremendous sway among the Republican faithful.
"I definitely think we need to have the respectful tone and we need to look at the record," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "We need to have the responsibilities that have been put on us by the Constitution taken very seriously."
The Senate's Republican leaders have cobbled together a strategy that recognizes they don't have the votes to block Sotomayor. They have combed over her record on the federal bench ahead of confirmation hearings and questioned whether she would be unbiased in her decisions on the high court. They have also watched quietly as Limbaugh, Gingrich and former Bush adviser Karl Rove have attacked Sotomayor.
"She brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court," Limbaugh said on his radio program last week.
"The real question here that needs to be asked, and nobody on our side, from a columnist to a TV commentator to anybody in our party has the guts to ask: How can a president nominate such a candidate, and how can a party get behind such a candidate? That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday refused to criticize that remark, although he said it doesn't represent his view.
"Look, I've got a big job to do, dealing with 40 Senate Republicans and trying to advance the nation's agenda," said McConnell, R-Ky. "I've got better things to do than be the speech police over people who are going to have their views about a very important appointment, which is an appointment to the United States Supreme Court."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican who on the Judiciary Committee, similarly said he wasn't going to baby-sit conservative commentators.
"I think that she is a person who believes that her background can influence her decision. That's what troubles me," said Sessions, R-Ala. Although he would prefer that they not call Sotomayor a racist, he said, "people have a free right to speak and say what they want and make the analogies that they want."
Sotomayor, nominated Tuesday to replace Justice David Souter when he retires, suggested in 2001 that her experiences influence her judicial decisions. The White House has said she likely regrets her choice of words but has stood by her nomination.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that he doesn't think Sotomayor is a racist. However, Graham, who is white, said she should apologize for comments that suggest "all the hardship she has gone through makes her better than me."
Obama's allies lined up in Sotomayor's defense.
"As long as you put rule of law first, of course, it's quite natural to understand that our experiences affect us. I don't think anybody wants nine justices on the Supreme Court who have ice water in their veins," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.