As expected, Sonya Sotomayor was easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The 68-31 roll call vote is tighter than John Robert’s 78-22 confirmation - but it is far larger than Samuel Alito’s 58-42.
All Democrats but Teddy Kennedy voted in favor of Sotomayor’s nomination, something we might have thought was a given but remained unclear until the final hours before the vote: Presumably fearful of attracting the NRA’s wrath, Alaska Senator Mark Begich did not announce his support for the nominee until the afternoon. Robert Byrd’s showing up is also a relief for Demorats, as it suggests the ailing West Virginia Senator is healthy enough to drag himself to the Senate for major votes; that should prove useful when health care reform makes it to the chamber’s floor later this year.
Yet, the vote’s most interesting storyline concerns Republicans. Out of 40 Senators, 9 voted to confirm Sotomayor: Lamar Alexander, Kit Bond, Susan Collins, Lindsay Graham, Judd Gregg, Richard Lugar, Mel Martinez, Olympia Snowe and George Voinovich.
This list contains two very striking features:
- 4 of the 9 - Bond, Gregg, Martinez and Voinovich - have announced they will not seek re-election in 2010, which means that 66% of retiring Republicans supported Sotomayor. (And it’s not like the four are generally considered moderates: Both Bond and Gregg are typically reliably conservative votes.)
- None of the other 5 Senators is facing re-election in 2010. In other words, not a single Republican who is running for re-election in 2010 voted to confirm Sotomayor.
Put these two facts together, and it certainly suggests that Republican Senators are genuinely scared that base anger is a far bigger threat to their re-election prospects than looking too conservative or attracting the wrath of Hispanic voters.
That’s all the more clear when you consider that this is the first time that John McCain (AZ), Bob Bennett (UT), Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) and Chuck Grassley (IA) have ever opposed the confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice. All three supported Ruth Ginsburg in 1993 and Stephen Breyer in 1994. So what changed?
Well, Hutchison is running against Texas Governor Rick Perry in what has already become a race to the far-right; Bennett is fighting for his political life against a slate of conservative opponents who are trying to topple him at a state convention dominated by party activists; and McCain is facing a challenge from the right from a Minuteman founder who is sure to make immigration a top issue (how would McCain’s support for a Hispanic nominee fit into that?).
As for Grassley, there is continued speculation that Iowa conservatives are angry enough at him that a primary challenger could gain some traction. (Also: Today’s vote should take care of all speculation that Grassley might retire next year. Democrats shouldn’t count on an Iowa open seat before 2016.)
Heading into the health care debate, the Republican Senators’ desire to stand by conservative activists raises obvious questions as to the prospect of a bipartisan bill. In the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus has excluded most Democrats to negotiate with 3 Republicans - Snowe, Grassley and Enzi, two of which have just voted against Sotomayor today.
How likely is it that Grassley will accept championing a meaningful reform if he is feeling enough conservative pressure to oppose Sotomayor? After all, support of the Democrats’ health care bill is likely to be considered a far bigger betrayal by the Republican base than a vote for Sotomayor. Given that, imagine how much Grassley will force the health care bill to be watered down before he allows Baucus to trumpet a bipartisan agreement - and that’s before we even put Enzi in the equation, as his reputation is more conservative than Grassley’s.