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Sotomayor heads to Capitol Hill

Nominee to meet with senators who'll decide her judicial fate.

WASHINGTON - Sonia Sotomayor huddled yesterday with administration lawyers at the White House, preparing for her first visits with key senators since becoming President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court as Republicans reiterated that they were in no hurry to confirm her to the post.

Sotomayor, in line to become the first Latina and third woman on the high court, was putting the finishing touches on a detailed Senate questionnaire ahead of her courtesy calls today to Senate leaders. The nominee, a federal appeals judge since 1998, is also slated to meet with top members of the Judiciary Committee, which will hold public hearings on her nomination this summer.

The 10-page form is intended to reveal the details of Sotomayor's finances, legal work, professional associations, speeches, and writings, and it provides a baseline for questions that senators will pose during the hearings. White House officials said the document, which requires copious backup material, should be completed "in the next couple of days."

As Sotomayor prepared for her Senate rounds, Republican leaders signaled that they would resist Obama's push to confirm her by Aug. 7, the start of the Senate's summer recess. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the panel's ranking Republican, have begun informal talks about the committee's summer schedule, with the aim of striking an agreement to minimize any procedural delays. Senior Senate aides in both parties are skeptical a deal to expedite her confirmation can be reached.

With Democrats holding 59 Senate seats, one short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster, and moderates in both parties already sending favorable signals about Sotomayor, Republican opponents are unlikely to find enough votes to block her confirmation. But they may be able to stall the process, pushing final floor action into September.

That would still allow Sotomayor to take retiring Justice David H. Souter's place as of Oct. 1, when the court will reconvene.

"I want to make sure she's ready to go when the new term starts," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who is due to meet with her this morning.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who is to meet with Sotomayor this afternoon, told Reid that he and his GOP colleagues would follow their own schedule. The Senate, he said, will "thoroughly review Judge Sotomayor's judicial record to ensure a full and informed debate over her qualifications."

McConnell and other Senate Republicans face a tricky balancing act: As they raise objections about the nominee, they have sought to use the most restrained language they can muster, to distance themselves from outside conservatives such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who have attacked her for past comments.

McConnell said he voted in 1998 against Sotomayor's nomination to the New York-based Second Circuit appeals court "out of a concern that she would bring preexisting personal and political beliefs into the courtroom."

"Many of those same concerns I had about the judge 11 years ago persist," he said.

Republicans "will insist that the confirmation process be conducted in a fair and professional manner," he said. "But respectful doesn't mean rushed."

Besides Reid and McConnell, Sotomayor today is to visit Leahy and Sessions, as well as party whips Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) and Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.). She is scheduled to have lunch with her home-state senators, Democrats Charles E. Schumer - a Judiciary member and her unofficial chaperone during the confirmation process - and Kirsten Gillibrand.

She will also visit with two other Judiciary members, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah).