NPR logo Sotomayor Grilled By Southern-Fried GOP

Sotomayor Grilled By Southern-Fried GOP

Pity the poor Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. They had to sit through four days of Sonia Sotomayor hearings under those hot TV lights, watching the Republicans have all the fun.

Oh sure, when it comes to the votes, the Democrats will prevail. They have a dozen committee seats to the Republicans' seven. And some of the GOP senators are likely to join them in voting to confirm President Obama's first choice for the Supreme Court, on committee and on the Senate floor next month. (More on which ones in a moment.)

But during the nominee's Big Media week, all the Democrats could do was smile at her, ask her friendly questions and slather her with praise. That's pretty much the only role allowed to the party of the president these days when a lifetime seat on the court is at stake.

It was far more compelling to watch the Republicans on the panel as they wheedled away, trying to get the nominee's goat, looking for what one called "a meltdown" moment.

At the same time, these same senators had to watch themselves, lest they give offense to women and Hispanic voters, who have already been trending Democratic in recent elections.

All in all it made for fine political theater, especially when spoken in the rich accents of Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Each spoke in the soft and expressive inflections of the South, even as they provided the toughest questioning of New Yorker Judge Sotomayor, who grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Still think the War Between the States is a relic from the century before last?

Time was when you could hear people talking in the Senate cloakroom and often identify their their party. Southerners were Democrats, period, from the Civil War until recent decades.

In our time, the regional split between the parties has reversed itself. The South tends to favor one party predominantly, and since 1994, it has favored Republicans with a majority of its Senate seats, House seats and governorships. More recently, as GOP fortunes have declined elsewhere, the onetime party of Abraham Lincoln has become increasingly identified as the Party of the South.

Of the 26 Senate seats defined as Southern by Congressional Quarterly, 19 now belong to Republicans. Throw in Kit Bond from Missouri (a border state) and you have half the 40 Republicans in the Senate hailing from one region.

Homing in on the Judiciary Committee, only one of the seven states represented on the panel by Republicans is a state that fought for Mr. Lincoln in the Civil War. That one would be Iowa, which was also the only state of these seven to vote for Barack Obama for president.

The other six states on the GOP side of the committee were either secessionist (South Carolina, Alabama and Texas), formed after the war by Southern sympathizers (Oklahoma) or admitted to the union decades later (Utah, Arizona).

We can see the obverse on the other side of the judiciary panel, where eight states have one Democrat on the committee and two states (Wisconsin and Minnesota) each have two. All 10 of these states stood with the Union in the Civil War (although we could quibble about Maryland, a border state that also had many Southern sympathizers). One thing is clear: All 10 voted for Barack Obama.

These 10 states with Democrats on the committee also tend to be more urban, including as they do four of the six most populous states (California, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania). The seven Republican states include Texas, the second most populous, but no other state ranked higher than 13th in population.

Despite the clear divisions of region, population and politics — and despite the partisan tone of the hearings — the committee is not expected to vote strictly on party lines when it considers the Sotomayor nomination later this month. While every Democrat is expected to vote for her, at least one or two Republicans may do so as well.

Orrin Hatch of Utah seemed disposed to vote for her, despite misgivings about her political associations and statements she had made. Charles Grassley of Iowa left himself enough room to vote for her, which the political realities of his state would also favor (Grassley will be on the ballot in 2010).

South Carolina's Graham also may vote for her, although he could be said to have done her the most damage in his questioning. Graham takes more chances than most senators in his public style and in his votes as well, and his hints throughout the hearing suggested he could go either way.

On the Senate floor in August, Sotomayor can count on several more Republican votes. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana have announced they will vote for her, as had Mel Martinez of Florida (who is retiring next year). George Voinovich of Ohio, also retiring next year, is considered another potential yes vote.

Observers generally expect two other female senators to support Sotomayor. They are Susan Collins, Snowe's colleague from Maine, and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, who like Snowe and Collins favors abortion rights.

The fourth Republican woman in the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, has a mixed record on abortion. But right now she is running for governor, challenging incumbent Rick Perry in next year's GOP primary. A vote for Sotomayor would not help her against Perry, although it could boost her prospects in the general election in a state that is 30 percent Hispanic.

Perhaps the biggest question mark at this point is Arizona's John McCain, the party nominee in 2008 and a frequent friend to Hispanic aspirations. McCain might like to vote for Sotomayor but may feel the approach of his own primary in 2010 and the tug from his in-state colleague Jon Kyl, a likely vote against confirmation.

Assuming all Democrats and independents are on hand, Sotomayor has a good shot at 70 votes, including up to 10 crossovers.

This would be a stronger showing than the last justice to be seated, Samuel Alito, whose appointment by President George W. Bush was confirmed 58-42 in 2006 with the help of just four Democrats. But it would fall well short of the standard set by Bush's first pick, Chief Justice John Roberts, who was confirmed in 2005 with 22 Democratic votes added to all 56 Republicans.

In the early 1990s, the great majority of Republicans crossed over to vote for President Bill Clinton's two nominees, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who were confirmed 87-9 and 96-3, respectively.

That now seems a simpler time, and far away.