WASHINGTON — The Senate's top Republican said Friday it's "way too early to know" whether his party will try to block a vote on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation, leaving open a possibility that a so-far mild debate on her confirmation could turn bitter.
Sen. Mitch McConnell appeared to break with others in his party who have said they don't foresee using Senate rules to try to stop Sotomayor. The Kentucky Republican said he believes blocking votes on judges is a "bad idea," but that Democrats established a precedent for doing so under former President George W. Bush.
"I'm not predicting it. I think it is way too early to even know. But I do think if you look at all the tools available, it's clearly one of them that may or may not be employed at some point" against Sotomayor, McConnell told reporters.
His comments came as Democrats and Republicans are haggling over when to begin confirmation hearings for Sotomayor, who would be the court's first Hispanic justice and third woman. Democrats are pushing for July hearings and a summertime vote; the GOP wants to wait until September, citing the judge's voluminous record during nearly 17 years on the bench.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary Committee's senior Republican, has said that a filibuster is unlikely. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, head of the GOP's Senate campaign committee, has said he doesn't have the votes to sustain a filibuster and doesn't believe that Republicans want to mount one.
Majority Democrats have more than enough votes to confirm President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court choice, but are one short of the 60 it would take to force a final vote if Republicans try to block it with a filibuster. Few doubt that Sotomayor will be confirmed, barring a major surprise.
Conservatives sought to raise new questions Friday about Sotomayor's views on hot-button issues, including capital punishment and abortion, based on positions taken by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Sotomayor served on the legal defense fund's board from 1980 to 1992.
Abortion-rights opponents circulated a 1988 legal brief joined by the PRLDEF that took a position in strong support of abortion rights and argued strenuously against dismantling the underpinnings of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a woman's right to end her pregnancy.
The brief, submitted to the Supreme Court to support a challenge to a Missouri law making it illegal to use public officials or facilities for abortions, warns of "the danger of tampering with the core framework of Roe v. Wade." The brief said doing so would disproportionately harm poor women of color. The high court ultimately upheld the Missouri law in the case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.
There is no evidence or indication that Sotomayor had any role in drafting the brief, or the PRLDEF's decision to join it. Cesar A. Perales, now the group's president, said its board has never been involved in deciding which cases the organization takes on or matters of litigation. Board members sometimes do, however, help decide which legal issues the organization should focus on, Perales said.
But abortion-rights opponents said the brief raises questions about Sotomayor's stance on Roe.
"It's explicitly a pro-abortion argument," said Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life. "That specific case makes it very difficult for her to say that she doesn't have a position" on abortion rights.
Groups on both sides of the issue have been searching in vain for evidence of where Sotomayor stands on Roe and its underpinnings, including the right to privacy.
The White House says it never asked Sotomayor about the issue, although Obama said during his presidential campaign that he would never name someone to the high court who didn't believe in the right to privacy.
In a voluminous response to a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire Thursday, Sotomayor said no one at the White House or in the administration had asked her about any issue or case that could reach the Supreme Court.
Left out of that massive portfolio _ which was supposed to include any memos, reports or policy statements she has written _ is a position paper she signed in 1981 while serving on a PRLDEF task force that opposed the restoration of the death penalty in New York.
That memo concludes that, "Capital punishment is associated with evident racism in our society."
Sotomayor gave the Senate a 1981 letter from a PRLDEF official to then-New York Gov. Hugh Carey that contained a nearly identical statement about the death penalty, but the memo that surfaced Friday was the first evidence that Sotomayor had signed onto such a statement herself.
Associated Press Radio reporter Gerald Bodlander contributed to this report.