WASHINGTON — Pushing toward an election-year Supreme Court confirmation vote, a polarized Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved Elena Kagan to be the fourth female justice.
Just one Republican joined Democrats to approve Kagan’s nomination and send it to the full Senate, where she’s expected to win confirmation within weeks.
“Elena Kagan will be confirmed,” predicted Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman. “She will go on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., broke with his party to cast the sole GOP “yes” vote on President Obama’s nominee to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. The vote was 13-6.
“What’s in Elena Kagan’s heart is that of a good person who adopts a philosophy I disagree with,” Graham said. “She will serve this nation honorably, and it would not have been someone I would have chosen, but the person who did choose, President Obama, I think chose wisely.”
At the White House, Obama hailed the vote as a “bipartisan affirmation of her strong performance” in confirmation hearings, and said Kagan would be “a fair and impartial” justice who understands the impact of Supreme Court decisions on everday people’s lives.
He called on the Senate to confirm her before Congress takes a monthlong summer break starting August 7 – a deadline Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he looks forward to meeting.
A few more Republicans are expected likely to back Kagan in the full Senate, where Democrats have more than enough votes to confirm her.
But most GOP senators are against her, arguing that she would put her political views ahead of the law. They point to what they call her liberal agenda and on such issues as abortion and gun rights, and have chastised her for the decision as dean of Harvard Law School to bar military recruiters from the campus career services office because of the policy against openly gay soldiers.
“She has deeply held liberal, progressive views,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel. As a justice, he said, Kagan “will not be the objective, impartial arbiter and settler of disputes, but someone who would use the opportunity to redefine words to advance an agenda that’s not in the court’s role to advance.”
Democrats praised Kagan, the 50-year-old who has served as the Obama administration’s solicitor general, calling her a highly qualified glass ceiling-shattering nominee who could bring consensus to an ideologically divided court.
“It becomes more and more apparent that we need a return to the center and a justice who will urge moderation and who will push for consensus. Elena Kagan’s record gives me confidence that she could be just such a voice,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
If confirmed, Kagan would be the fourth woman to serve on the court and her swearing-in would mark the first time that three women have served together on the nine-member Supreme Court.
The debate over her nomination has unfolded against a highly partisan backdrop, at a time when Republicans are focused on making sharp distinctions between themselves and Obama, whose approval ratings are sagging little more than 100 days out from midterm elections.
“It’s a tough political environment out there,” noted Graham.
Republicans have been quicker to announce their opposition to Kagan than they were last year to Obama’s first high court nominee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Graham is the only Republican so far to say he’ll vote “yes.”
Democrats attributed the difference to political considerations by the GOP.
“Sadly, it appears election-year politics may deprive her of the vote total that her nomination deserves,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Politically active conservative groups are pressuring GOP senators to oppose Kagan’s nomination. The National Rifle Association is urging a “no” vote or a filibuster to block Kagan outright, saying she’s hostile to the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, and has warned that it will downgrade supporters in candidate ratings that are circulated to millions of gun-owning voters.
The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion rights group, wrote to senators Monday urging opposition based on Kagan’s actions as a Clinton administration official to resist a broad ban on a procedure opponents call partial-birth abortion.
The group pointed to Kagan’s intervention with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in the mid-1990s to prevent the professional group from issuing a flat statement saying the controversial procedure was never medically necessary. Notes and documents released by Clinton’s presidential library last month show that Kagan suggested the group qualify that position – which she wrote would be a “disaster ” – by saying that the method is sometimes best or most appropriate to preserve the mother’s health.
“(A) willingness to bend medical facts to support an ideological point of view is inconsistent with the temperament required of a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court,” wrote Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president.