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Republican Support for Sotomayor Limited

As the full Senate begins debate today on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, the veteran federal judge appears assured of confirmation but without the sweeping bipartisan majority her backers hoped for the nation's first Hispanic high court pick.

On Monday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona became the 27th Republican to announce he will vote against Sotomayor. The GOP's 2008 presidential nominee joins others in his party from states with large Hispanic populations, including Texans John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, and McCain's Arizona colleague, deputy Senate Republican leader Jon Kyl.

Six of the Senate's 40 Republicans have announced they will support Sotomayor when the Senate votes this week.

None of the 60 senators who caucus with the Democrats has announced opposition to Sotomayor, so the only question is her margin of victory. Democratic Senate leaders are planning to make the vote on Sotomayor the last thing senators do before leaving town for a month-long recess. The timing is designed to give President Obama something to celebrate as he heads into a bruising debate on health care.

Yet the vote appears likely to underscore a problem he faces as he tries to sell his top legislative priority: his limited ability to bridge the partisan divide.

Sotomayor represents "a historic nomination by a popular president, and she can't even muster more votes than John Roberts, a conservative white guy," says Wendy Long of Judicial Confirmation Network, a conservative group opposed to Sotomayor.

Chief Justice John Roberts won 78 votes, including 22 Democrats, when he was confirmed in 2005 to replace the late William Rehnquist. President George W. Bush's second Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, was confirmed the next year by 58 senators, including four Democrats, when he replaced Sandra Day O'Connor.

Democrats hope to capitalize on what they see as a GOP snub of the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc. Hispanics have held the keys to the White House in the past two presidential elections, opening the door for Bush in 2004, when he got more than 40% of the Hispanic vote, and then for Barack Obama, who won 67% of the Hispanic vote last year.

"This is one of those very decisive moments for the Latino community," said Henry Cisneros, who was a member of President Clinton's Cabinet. The former housing secretary plans to speak Thursday at a Los Angeles rally in support of Sotomayor's nomination - one of a series planned around the country to thank senators who backed her but also to "call attention to those who opposed her," he said.

Republicans have been aware of the risks involved in opposing Sotomayor. Danny Vargas, the head of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said some senators sought his advice about how to frame the Sotomayor debate. "Keep it respectful," he said he advised them. Vargas defended Republicans who oppose Sotomayor, noting that Democrats blocked some of Bush's minority judicial nominees.

National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Augustine Martinez, a Republican, said he is "incredibly disappointed" that more GOP senators aren't backing Sotomayor.

McCain called Sotomayor, a 17-year veteran of the federal bench, "immensely qualified" with an "inspiring" life story, but he criticized "her long public record of judicial activism."

The National Rifle Association has announced its opposition to Sotomayor, the first time the gun lobby has taken a stand on a Supreme Court nomination. The group is worried that a Sotomayor ruling last year upholding a state regulation on martial-arts sticks indicates she might favor limits on gun owners' rights.

Several senators, including Hutchison, cited concerns about gun rights in opposing Sotomayor. For others, including McCain, the memories of past fights over judicial nominees loom larger. The Arizona senator brought up Democrats' decision to block another Hispanic judicial candidate with "an excellent résumé and an inspiring life story." That was Miguel Estrada, a Bush nominee to an appeals court seat in the District of Columbia.

Other Republicans cited Obama's own record opposing both of Bush's Supreme Court nominees. "Sen. Obama never voted to confirm a Supreme Court justice," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, observed. "He even voted against a man who administered the oath of presidential office, Chief Justice John Roberts, another distinguished and well-qualified nominee."

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