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Sotomayor nomination moves to full Senate

The Judiciary panel's approval masked deep divisions in the GOP about confirming her.

WASHINGTON - Pushing toward a historic Supreme Court confirmation vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor yesterday over nearly solid Republican opposition.

The 13-6 vote masked deep divisions within GOP ranks about confirming President Obama's first high court nominee. Just one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined Democrats to support her.

Four Republicans not on the Judiciary Committee have said they, too, will vote for Sotomayor when her nomination comes before the full Senate next week - and that number is expected to grow.

Graham said: "I would not have chosen her, but I understand why President Obama did. I gladly give her my vote, because I think she meets the qualifications test."

Obama's nomination of the first Latina to the court is "a big deal," Graham added. He declared, "America has changed for the better with her selection."

The 12 Judiciary Democrats who all voted to advance the nomination included Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Ted Kaufman of Delaware.

Many GOP conservatives have chosen to side with their core supporters and oppose a judge who they contend will bring liberal bias and racial and gender prejudices to her rulings. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, voicing concerns about Sotomayor's views on the Second Amendment, yesterday joined the list of Republicans who have said they will vote no.

Others in the party, however, worry that opposing her could hurt their efforts to broaden their base, and particularly alienate Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate. The vote had posed a particularly sticky dilemma for Hutchison, who is seeking her party's 2010 nomination for governor in Texas, where the population is more than one-third Latino.

Hispanic and civil rights groups hailed the committee's approval of Sotomayor as a turning point in the march toward embracing diversity and racial equality.

Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights called it "a significant milestone in our country's journey toward providing equal justice under the law."

Several strategists on both sides who have been closely tracking the nomination, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that as many as five more Republicans could join the five who have already said they support Sotomayor.

Conservative activists are pressing for the GOP to keep up a united front against her, whatever the political consequences. Judiciary Republicans "deserve praise for putting principle above identity politics today in voting against Sonia Sotomayor," said Curt Levey of the Committee for Justice.

Democrats, for their part, are lining up solidly in favor of the 55-year-old federal appeals court judge, who is poised to succeed retired Justice David H. Souter.

"There's not one example - let alone a pattern - of her ruling based on bias or prejudice or sympathy," said Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.).

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Judiciary Republican, countered that her speeches and a few of her rulings showed she would let her opinions interfere in decisions.

But even Sessions acknowledged the landmark nature of Sotomayor's nomination, in a remark revealing the near-certainty that he will end up on the losing side of next week's confirmation vote.

Minutes after the Judiciary Committee action, he said: "I think all of us feel that it's a good thing that we have a Hispanic on the Supreme Court."