While acknowledging little chance of blocking the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader McConnell, are pulling few punches in questioning Sotomayor's qualifications in a coordinated effort aimed at their conservative base and future nomination fights, aides said.
McConnell, who is not on the Judiciary Committee, has opened something like a second front against Sotomayor on the Senate floor and in news releases, taking up the issue with the persistence and focus he has used in opposing a public option in healthcare reform and the proposed closure of the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In nine floor speeches since June 23, McConnell has questioned the role of Sotomayor's personal views in her decisions, particularly in a ruling recently overturned by the Supreme Court where she upheld a New Haven, Conn., decision not to promote 18 firefighters after no black applicants scored high enough to qualify on a job test.
On Monday, McConnell said the New Haven case and others "strongly suggest a pattern of unequal treatment in Judge Sotomayor's judicial record, particularly in high-profile cases."
The Senate Republican Communications Center, overseen by McConnell, also today sent seven e-mails as part of what aides said will be a hearing-long "rapid-response" effort aimed at making confirmation "a tough vote for moderates."
In openly courting "no" votes, McConnell has mostly abandoned the pretense of awaiting testimony at the confirmation hearings, a step Democrats faulted.
"It's no surprise that the Republicans have mounted an aggressive, ideological attack," said a Democrat involved in the confirmation process. "They made a decision to play to their shrinking base. ... But they run a significant risk of alienating independents, and they look a little petty ignoring Sotomayor's 17-year record on the bench."
An aide said McConnell's active role in part reflects the nomination's "incredible importance to a lot of conservatives." But the aide added that Senate Republicans are also attempting to put down a marker for future nomination fights.
That approach was evident in opening statements Monday by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who focused as much on what they call President Obama's "empathy standard" for judges as they did on Sotomayor.
John David Dyche, a Louisville, Ky.-based lawyer and political commentator who recently published a political biography of McConnell based on a series of interviews, said McConnell and other Senate Republicans recognize Sotomayor will be confirmed but are using the hearing to paint the Obama administration as radical.
Dyche noted that, as a Senate aide in the 1970s, McConnell co-authored a law review article arguing Supreme Court nominees should be confirmed if they have adequate qualifications and no personal issues that disqualify them, but has since "abandoned that position" due to what he considered Democrats' excesses in opposing GOP nominees.
"He feels he can't disarm," Dyche said.
Dyche's biography, "Republican Leader," quotes McConnell acknowledging that he called White House Counsel Harriet Miers "well-qualified to join the highest court" and "an excellent nomination" despite privately believing that "by any objective standard, she was not ready for today's Supreme Court."
Miers, nominated by former President George W. Bush, eventually withdrew.
McConnell told Dyche he felt constrained by his role in leadership from offering his true view of that nomination.
This article appears in the July 18, 2009, edition of National Journal Daily.