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Obama Says Judge Regrets Wording
But Sessions added that the Judiciary Committee may not be able to hold hearings on Sotomayor quickly enough to make a decision by August, as Obama has requested.
Although Senate GOP leaders have been generally restrained in their remarks about Sotomayor, racially charged attacks from other conservatives have dominated much of the public discussion since her nomination Tuesday. Gingrich, for example, wrote to followers on his Twitter account this week: "White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw."
Former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove questioned the intellect of Sotomayor -- a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School -- while Curt Levey of the conservative Committee for Justice argued that she was "picked because she's a woman and Hispanic, not because she was the best qualified."
Former congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) took Sotomayor to task for her membership in the National Council of La Raza, calling the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group "a Latino KKK without the hoods or nooses."
The group's president, Janet Murguía, said in an interview: "There should be some sensitivity among factions of the Republican Party who are making these extreme comments. . . . The optics don't look very good. It will not resonate well with Hispanics or with women."
The deteriorating tone of the attacks has clearly alarmed many in the GOP establishment, who say the party must remain civil in its criticism of Sotomayor and should focus on legal issues, rather than personal attacks or racial accusations. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called such remarks "terrible" during a National Public Radio interview and noted that Gingrich and Limbaugh are not "elected Republican officials."
"This is not the kind of tone any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent," he said. "I just don't think it's appropriate."
John Ullyot, a GOP strategist who worked on judicial nominations as a Capitol Hill staffer, said that "any comments politically on race or gender are fraught with peril for Republicans."
"A few conservatives from outside of the Senate, in their zeal to pick a fight over Obama's nominee, decided to get very ugly very quickly," Ullyot said. "No one in the Senate has followed along, and that's the loudest condemnation you can have."
More than two dozen Republican senators issued news releases this week about Sotomayor, and virtually all of them were restrained and noncommittal. Many also emphasized that her nomination is an important milestone.
A handful of key Republican senators hit the airwaves within hours of Sotomayor's nomination and offered measured objections to her 2001 speech, however, saying it was one of the issues they want her to address during Judiciary Committee hearings. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) also questioned "her ability to rule fairly without undue influence from her own personal race, gender or political preferences."
In his first day back in Washington since the nomination was announced, Sessions said he had spoken briefly by phone with Sotomayor and expected to talk with her in person next week when she begins making the rounds for meetings with key senators. He said he and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who will appear together on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, have not spoken about the process because Leahy has been traveling abroad during the week-long Memorial Day recess.
"I hope people will say, 'This is the way a hearing should be conducted,' " Sessions said.
Staff writer Shailagh Murray and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.