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Sotomayor's big sell on Capitol Hill: Reid calls her 'the whole package'

June 2, 2009 |  9:02 am

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid welcomes Obama Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor to the Capitol

They are called courtesy calls, highly scripted visits by a Supreme Court nominee to the offices of the senators who will vote on his or her nomination. The White House usually schools the nominee to make a good impression but commit no news. The senators, both supporters and potential opponents, try out their lines, testing their political instincts about a nominee's assets or liabilities against the live person.

But the visits are no tea party and have been known to torpedo a nomination.

As Roll Call reminded us this morning, White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, President George W. Bush's pick for the Supreme Court, bombed during her courtesy calls, leaving both Democratic and Republican senators dubious that she had the "intellectual weight or experience to merit a lifetime appointment to the high court." Chief Justice John G. Roberts, on the other hand, was a hit with senators when he made the rounds in 2005 -- particularly with Judiciary Committee Ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, who threw his weight behind the nomination.

So it was more than empty palliatives today (though you'd be forgiven for reaching that conclusion) when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid welcomed federal appellate court Judge Sonia Sotomayor --  President Obama's first nominee to the Supreme Court and the first Latina nominated.

After a half-hour meeting, Reid ushered the judge into his anteroom, where two chairs had been set up for the benefit of reporters. Among his talking points: He was "terribly impressed" by her academic background (Princeton summa cum laude, editor of Yale Law Review) and "very impressed" by her judicial experience and her life story, "so compelling that America identifies with the underdog."

When a reporter shouted a question to the judge about how she was feeling today, Sotomayor smiled and said nothing, merely following Reid back into his office. Smart cookie, as any White House worth its political stripes coaches judicial nominees to be silent publicly until after they are confirmed.

The judge has a full schedule today -- meeting with Vermont Sen. Leahy, now chairman of the Judiciary Committee, 
appointments with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and lunch with her two home-state Democratic senators -- veteran Charles E. Schumer and freshman Kirsten Gillibrand.

But perhaps the most interesting meeting today is between Sotomayor and Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Sessions was himself rejected as a judicial candidate during the Reagan administration after reports surfaced that he had called the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People "un-American" and had once told a colleague that they "forced civil rights down the throats of people." But Sessions, perhaps bruised by his own judicial scarring 23 years ago, has called on fellow Republicans to stop calling Sotomayor a racist.

That hasn't stopped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's running for president, or conservative icon Rush Limbaugh, who likes to fire up the troops. But it might win her more votes.

 -- Johanna Neuman

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Photo: Susan Walsh / Associated Press