WASHINGTON — The Senate's No. 3 Republican announced Thursday he'd break with the rest of his party's leaders to support Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who's in line to become the first Hispanic justice.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said he was voting for President Barack Obama's nominee despite his differences with her, particularly on gun rights.
"Even though Judge Sotomayor's political and judicial philosophy may be different than mine, especially regarding Second Amendments rights, I will vote to confirm her because she is well qualified by experience, temperament, character and intellect to serve," Alexander said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Alexander, a conservative, is only the sixth Republican to line up publicly with majority Democrats to back Sotomayor, a New York City native and a federal appeals court judge. She's virtually guaranteed to be confirmed in a vote next week, and is expected to join the Supreme Court in time for an earlier-than-usual meeting in September to hear a campaign finance case.
The others Republicans supporting her include fellow conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and moderate Sens. Dick Lugar of Indiana, Mel Martinez of Florida, and Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
The impending vote on Sotomayor has confronted the GOP with a political dilemma. Many senators are torn between their desire to please a conservative base that opposes Obama's nominee and a fear that doing so could alienate Hispanic voters, a fast-growing part of the electorate.
Alexander noted in his speech that as a governor, he had named women and African Americans to the bench, as well as people from both parties.
"In the same way, it is my hope that my vote now not only will help to confirm a well-qualified nominee but will help to return the Senate to the practice, only recently lost, of inquiring diligently into qualifications of a nominee and then accepting that elections have consequences, one of which is to confer upon the president the constitutional right to nominate justices," Alexander said.
Hispanic leaders praised Alexander for his decision, and one sought to pressure publicly uncommitted Republicans and Democrats to follow his example. Claudine Karasik of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said she hoped to see "similar statesman-like leadership by his colleagues from Nevada, Montana, Georgia, Alaska, Nebraska and Arizona."
Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson both announced Thursday that they will vote no.
But others who have yet to announce how they will vote include: Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Begich of Alaska and Republican Sens. John Ensign of Nevada, John McCain of Arizona, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
They all come from conservative states, and all but McCain have high ratings from the National Rifle Association, which calls Sotomayor "hostile" to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and plans to count a vote to confirm her against senators in its candidate ratings. The scores can hold major sway over politically active gun rights supporters and the lawmakers who represent them.