WASHINGTON — Outspoken Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday that he'd vote for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, calling her "well qualified."
Graham's decision had been closely watched as an important barometer of whether Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, would attract strong bipartisan support.
"I would not have chosen her if I had made this choice as president," the conservative Graham said in a Senate speech, "but I understand why President Obama did choose her, and I'm happy to vote for her."
Graham, the fifth Republican senator — and the first Republican on the Senate Judiciary committee — to declare his support for the federal appellate judge, urged colleagues to put aside partisan politics.
"I do believe elections have consequences, and it's not like we hid from the American people during the campaign that the Supreme Court selections were at stake," said Graham, who was a strong supporter of 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
"When you look at the history of this country," Graham said, "great deference has been given to that selection by the United States Senate. While I'm not bound to vote for Judge Sotomayor, it would be the path of least political resistance for me.
"I choose to vote for Judge Sotomayor because I believe she is well qualified."
The other four Republican backers — Indiana's Richard Lugar, Florida's Mel Martinez and Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — were no surprise because each is considered more moderate than Graham is.
Since Democrats control 60 Senate seats, the Republican support almost assures Sotomayor of an overwhelming confirmation vote, probably the first week of August.
Graham has a solidly conservative voting record and is one of the seven Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, which heard four days of testimony from Sotomayor last week.
Graham signaled at that time that he could vote for her, because he respected her judicial record. However, he added, many of her statements "bug the hell out of me."
Among her more controversial remarks was a 2001 statement that a "wise Latina" could reach a better conclusion than a white male.
"Do you understand that if I had said anything like that and my reasoning was that I was trying to inspire somebody, they would have had my head?" he asked at one point.
Sotomayor said repeatedly last week that she'd made a poor choice of words, a "rhetorical flourish that fell flat."
Graham, who was elected to a second term last year, on Wednesday addressed his concern — as well as the concern of many Republicans — that Sotomayor too often would allow personal feelings to color her rulings.
"If the United States Senate tries to have a confirmation process where we explore another person's heart," he said, "I think we're going to chill out people wanting to become members of the judiciary.
"Who would want to come before the Senate and have us try to figure out what's in your heart?"
Not everyone agreed. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate's second-ranking Republican and a fellow Judiciary Committee member, said Wednesday that he'd oppose Sotomayor.
He said her "wise Latina" remark was "not just a comment out of context but is the essence of the speeches. Her attempt to re-characterize these speeches at the committee hearing strained credulity."
However, Graham said, senators should think back to Supreme Court nomination debates of the past. Only once has a filibuster against a nominee been successful, when opponents of President Lyndon Johnson's choice Abe Fortas as chief justice were unable to cut off debate in 1968.
Also think, he said, of the overwhelming votes for respected justices in the recent past: Ronald Reagan nominee Antonin Scalia was confirmed 98-0 in 1986 and Bill Clinton picks Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer won overwhelming confirmation. Only three senators opposed Ginsburg and nine voted against Breyer.
"I'm not bound to agree with every pick of President Obama," Graham said, "but when it comes to trying to show some deference, I will."
ON THE WEB Sen. Kyl statement
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