WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats, determined to seat Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court quickly, announced July hearings on her nomination in a move yesterday that angry and surprised Republicans said clouded the prospects for the nomination and other legislative business.
GOP leaders lashed out after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) said he would convene the hearings July 13 - considerably earlier than Republicans wanted. He said the date presented a "fair and adequate" schedule in line with that for past Supreme Court nominees.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) called the Democrats' tactics "heavyhanded" and urged them to reconsider the schedule.
"Because of what our Democratic colleagues are doing and the way they are doing it," McConnell said, "it will now be much more difficult to achieve the kind of comity and cooperation on this and other matters that we need and expect around here."
President Obama has urged the Senate to vote on confirming Sotomayor before Congress recesses in August. Republicans say that they need more time to review her nearly 17-year record on the federal bench and that a September vote would provide plenty of time before the next court term begins in October.
Leahy said Sotomayor, who would succeed retiring Justice David H. Souter, "deserves the opportunity to go before the public and speak of her record." He said the hearings would be her first and only opportunity to publicly defend herself against criticism, including conservative allegations that she is racist.
"This is a historic nomination, and I hope all senators will cooperate," Leahy said of Sotomayor, who would be the court's first Hispanic justice. "She deserves a fair hearing - not trial by attack and assaults about her character."
Republicans were blindsided by the announcement but cognizant they have few options short of moving to block votes on Sotomayor or hold up Senate business - both politically unpalatable choices. They warned that they would press their argument.
"I'm going to insist that we do it right," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Judiciary Republican, who had been in private negotiations with Leahy on a hearing date. "This rush is ill-advised."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama was pleased with the schedule.
Mid-July hearings should allow for a confirmation vote before the recess, Leahy said, "unless people put unnecessary delays" on the nomination. He said the timetable roughly matched the one Republicans and Democrats agreed on for confirming Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. after President George W. Bush named him in 2005.
Republicans point instead to the 92 days between the nomination that year of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and his confirmation, and say the 3,000-plus rulings Sotomayor has made warrant a much longer lag time than the 300-plus decisions Roberts had written.
Sotomayor, meanwhile, was camped out yesterday in a Capitol office meeting with a succession of visiting senators. She scrapped plans to go see them in their own offices because of her broken ankle.