WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed scheduled action Tuesday to send Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate for confirmation, setting a panel vote for next week.
Republicans insisted on the delay, saying they needed more time to review Kagan's written answers to questions they posed to her after her confirmation hearings, and to inquire still further into how she would behave as a justice.
There's little doubt that the Judiciary panel, where Democrats have a lopsided majority, will approve President Barack Obama's nominee to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, and that she'll win Senate confirmation within weeks. Democrats have more than enough votes to elevate her, and a handful of Republicans is likely to join them.
But most GOP senators are expected to vote "no," and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, strongly suggested he'll be one of them.
"Fundamentally, the nominee lacks the experience and intellectual rigor that you develop in the full-time practice of law or from serving as a judge," Sessions said of Kagan, who served as solicitor general but has never been a judge or spent substantial time practicing law.
He said Republicans still want to know whether Kagan would recuse herself from cases involving issues that arose while she was serving as the Obama administration's top lawyer, such as challenges to the constitutionality of the president's health care overhaul.
The notion that Kagan didn't weigh in or give advice on the measure in a way that would bar her from ethically ruling on it as a justice, Sessions said, is "difficult if not impossible to believe."
All seven GOP members of the panel signed a letter to Kagan Tuesday demanding answers on the subject before next week's vote.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was granting the delay despite his suspicion that everyone on the committee had already decided how they would vote on Kagan. Not surprisingly, he said he plans to support her.
"I believe she will ably fill the seat occupied for decades by Justice Stevens with dignity and honor," Leahy said.
Senators are under pressure, however from the gun lobby and conservative groups to oppose Kagan.
The National Rifle Association is asking gun owners to urge senators to oppose Kagan or filibuster her confirmation. The pro-gun rights group said that it planned to begin circulating a Web advertisement this week comparing Kagan's answers on gun issues at her confirmation hearings with those of Obama's first high court nominee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who they contend misled senators last year about her support for the right to bear arms.
Some organizations on the left also have lingering questions about what kind of justice Kagan would be.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights said Tuesday that it couldn't take a position on Kagan because it hadn't learned enough about her record on issues the group makes a priotity.
"Key questions remain regarding her civil rights record that we had hoped would be answered during the confirmations hearings, but were not completely," said Barbara Arnwine, the group's executive director, in a statement that called Kagan "accomplished" and "qualified."
The group endorsed Obama's first high court nominee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, last year several weeks before the Senate confirmed her.
If confirmed, Kagan, 50, would become the fourth woman to have served on the court, as well as the third sitting female justice.
(This version corrects lawyers committee name to show that its 'for' rather than 'on' civil rights.)