WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan encountered skeptical Senate Republicans and enthusiastic Democrats on Wednesday as she spent the day making private visits to key senators who'll be voting on her confirmation.
Kagan's meetings, usually about half an hour each, came as senators began to sharpen their perceptions of the 50-year-old solicitor general, whom President Barack Obama nominated Monday to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
While her path to confirmation by midsummer still appears smooth, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky set the GOP tone early, going to the Senate floor before his meeting and questioning her independence.
"She's never had to develop the judicial habit of saying no to an administration, and we can't simply assume that she would," McConnell said.
Kagan has never been a judge. She's been the dean of Harvard Law School and an adviser to President Bill Clinton, and she helped Vice President Joe Biden, who was then the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, in 1993 during confirmation hearings for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She's also been a private corporate attorney and a law professor.
Kagan got warm support Wednesday from Democrats. She "left me confident that she is the right choice," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The visits are the first Senate ritual that freshly minted nominees must follow. No one expects senators or the nominee to emerge from such courtesy calls and say anything controversial — at least not right away — and there were few indications that much of substance came up.
"It's political theater," said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
Kagan at times was asked to discuss her decision, as Harvard Law School dean, to bar military recruiters from campus in protest of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., thought that stance wouldn't be a problem, though Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's top Republican, left his meeting wanting to know more about her views on the issue.
The visits are significant because they provide the first clues to how Kagan will be accepted by the senators who'll decide her fate, and the talks, usually in senators' private officers, can ease tensions on both sides.
"You can't shout at somebody quite as loud if you've had a cup of coffee with them," said Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy-research center.
Sometimes appointees don't pass the private-visit test. Harriet Miers, President George W. Bush's 2005 nominee, withdrew 24 days after being named and visiting senators, when conservatives wound up questioning her credentials and her philosophy.
Kagan's visits, which started Wednesday with Senate leaders and Judiciary Committee members, will continue all week as she aims to meet with all 100 senators.
Republicans suggested that Kagan will have to pass the "stature test," since she'd join the court as its only justice without previous judicial experience and with scant courtroom experience.
However, said Wheeler, an expert on the federal judiciary, "I suspect being dean of the Harvard Law School will counter any thought she doesn't have the gravitas." After meeting with Kagan, Leahy declared she was "at the top of the legal profession."
Kagan was the Harvard Law dean from 2003 through 2009, before she became the solicitor general, the administration's top trial attorney.
So far, there appear to be few major obstacles to her confirmation.
"They're going through this Kabuki dance now. There will be opposition, but at the end of the day, she'll get confirmed," said Susan Low Bloch, a professor at Georgetown University Law School.
Once the visits are over, the confirmation process will enter its next phase: the investigation by Judiciary Committee staff, as well as the news media. It's not uncommon for new questions to arise during this period, which is expected to last a month or two.
Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings are expected to begin in early summer, and Kagan probably will spend about a week testifying. The Senate hopes for a final vote by Aug. 6, when it's scheduled to begin a five-week recess.
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