WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor paid her first Capitol Hill visits yesterday to key senators who will be voting on her confirmation. She found Democrats enthusiastic and Republicans wary and somewhat skeptical.
"I don't think she's vulnerable at all," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.).
While Republican senators vowed to ask tough questions about affirmative action and judicial activism, few were willing to rule out backing the New York-based federal appeals judge.
Sotomayor, 54, nominated last week by President Obama to succeed retiring Justice David H. Souter, spent the day in private conversations with senators of about a half-hour each.
They quizzed her on the controversies that have surfaced in recent days, notably her views on abortion rights and a 2001 comment she made during a University of California law school lecture.
Sotomayor said then, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experience, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Leahy said the judge explained to him yesterday that "what she said was, of course, one's life experience shapes who you are. But ultimately and completely - and she used those words, ultimately and completely - as a judge, you follow the law."
"There's not one law for one race or another," he said she told him. "There's not one law for one color or another. There's not one law for rich and a different one for poor. There's only one law."
Leahy and other Democrats, whose party controls 59 Senate seats, emerged largely satisfied and unsurprised by what they heard in their meetings with Sotomayor.
"Is there a serious impediment to her nomination? I don't see it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), a Judiciary member.
Republicans on the committee were less enthusiastic.
Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said he thought the "wise Latina" comment "was not an isolated incident." Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah) said he thought that "some of the things that have been said are troubling."
However, because senators historically are reluctant to oppose Supreme Court nominees whom they regard as qualified, and because an important political constituency has embraced Sotomayor as the first Hispanic nominee, there was little outright opposition to her.
"Nothing's a deal-breaker at this point," said Cornyn, who heads the GOP Senate reelection committee.
Sotomayor began her day visiting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who afterward declared her "the whole package," and then she went to see Leahy.
The Judiciary chairman, who will largely control the confirmation process, was almost defensive after his meeting with Sotomayor, saying that some attacks on the nominee "are among the most vicious I've ever seen by anybody."
Among his complaints: radio host Rush Limbaugh branding her a "reverse racist" and "an affirmative-action case extraordinaire," and former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, an anti-immigration activist, calling the National Council of La Raza, a prominent Latino activist group, "a Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses," and then adding, "She's a member."
Republican senators have not engaged in that kind of rhetoric and have urged supporters to tone down their comments.
Leahy lamented that Sotomayor's only chance to answer such allegations would be at her confirmation hearings.
"They can't speak out while they're a nominee," he said. "It's a lot different than those of us who run for elective office who are in a debate a day."
Perhaps the most telling comment yesterday from a senator came after the top Judiciary Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, finished meeting with Sotomayor. He urged Leahy to slow the confirmation process - the two will discuss that today - and would not say he was fully satisfied with Sotomayor's answers or her record.
But Sessions did say: "I'm very impressed with her knowledge, her experience, her energy level. It was a delight to talk with her."