WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor won more GOP support in her drive toward near-certain Senate confirmation Thursday as the first Hispanic justice, even as a growing chorus of Republicans called her unfit for the bench.
Republican Sens. Kit Bond of Missouri and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire broke with their party to announce they'd support President Barack Obama's nominee, as the Senate cleared the way for a history-making vote that will shape the court for decades to come and could carry heavy political consequences for both parties.
"There's been no significant finding against her, there's been no public uprising against her," said Bond, who is retiring. "I will support her, I'll be proud for her, the community she represents and the American dream she shows is possible."
Gregg said in a statement released by his office that politicizing the confirmation process — as he argued Democrats did when they blocked GOP nominees in the past — "undermines the public's views of our courts and the integrity of our judicial system."
Their comments came as Democrats were preparing to declare political victory on Sotomayor's confirmation and warning that Republicans who opposed Sotomayor would face a backlash from Hispanics, a large and fast-growing segment of the electorate.
"To say that you cannot vote for this qualified Latina to be on the United States Supreme Court sends a message to us as a community that we will not forget," said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Senate's lone Hispanic Democrat and his party's campaign committee chief. His comments, at a rally outside the Capitol with labor, civil rights and other liberal groups, were met with raucous cheers from a crowd waving signs bearing Sotomayor's picture and sporting "Sonia" buttons.
Republicans bristled at the suggestion, noting that Democrats used extraordinary measures several years ago to block the ascension of GOP-nominated Miguel Estrada, a Honduran-born attorney, to the federal bench.
"The fact that this is a proud moment for our nation has not been lost on me," said Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, one of several Republicans from states with large Hispanic populations who are opposing Sotomayor. "Unfortunately, partisan politics came into play and Miguel Estrada's record was not judged merely on merits."
Sotomayor, 55, is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who was raised in a South Bronx housing project and educated in the Ivy League before going on to success in the legal profession and then the federal bench. Obama chose her to replace retiring Justice David Souter, a liberal named by a Republican president, and she's not expected to alter the court's ideological balance.
Nearly three-quarters of the Senate's 40 Republicans oppose Sotomayor, leaving just a handful breaking with their party to join Democrats in backing her. That's still more than enough to easily confirm the judge, barring a surprise turn of events.
Many GOP senators, initially worried that opposing Sotomayor could alienate Hispanic voters, have nonetheless sided with their conservative base in branding her unacceptable for the high court. They're arguing that Sotomayor would bring bias to the court and allow a liberal agenda to trump the law.
"She has not stuck to the letter of the law," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. "I'm concerned by the several examples where I believe Judge Sotomayor strayed from the rules of strict statutory construction and legal precedence and went with her own deeply held beliefs."
Three more Republicans came out against Sotomayor as debate unfolded Wednesday, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso.
Murkowski said Sotomayor's speeches and rulings on gun and property rights have undermined her credibility and cast doubt on her ability to rule objectively. Those issues and a ruling Sotomayor joined rejecting the reverse discrimination claims of white firefighters who were denied promotions have become the top GOP complaints about the judge.
"I cannot vote to confirm a nominee to the United States Supreme Court who will restrict several of the fundamental rights and liberties in our Constitution, including our Bill of Rights," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "The stakes, I believe, are simply too high to confirm someone who could redefine the law of the land from a liberal perspective."
The National Rifle Association, which strongly opposes Sotomayor, is threatening to downgrade any senator that votes for her in its influential candidate ratings. The warning has had little impact on Democrats, but it appears to have made a difference to several Republicans who had been considered possible supporters of Sotomayor but have said her position on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms makes her unacceptable.
GOP senators also say they're unsatisfied with Sotomayor's explanation of a 2001 speech — similar to comments she's made throughout her career — in which she said she hoped a "wise Latina" would usually make better decisions than a white male.
Democrats point instead to a long record of rulings in which Sotomayor has reached the same conclusions as judges who are considered more conservative. They call her a moderate who is restrained in her legal interpretations and argue that her controversial remarks — while perhaps worded inartfully — show nothing more than a belief that diverse experiences help a judge see all sides of a case.
"Real-world experience, real-world judging, an awareness of the real-world consequences of decisions are vital aspects of the law, and here we have a nominee who has had more experience as a federal judge than any nominee in decades," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman.