As the Obama administration outlines a comprehensive campaign to move Solicitor General Elena Kagan's Supreme Court candidacy through Congress, there is a clear recognition that the nomination will become a referendum on the president himself.
On Wednesday, the White House will begin the first phase of the Kagan rollout, with the Solicitor General meeting key members of Senate leadership from both political parties. The schedule includes a sit down with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
The meetings are the sort of perfunctory fair that comes with every Supreme Court nominee -- more informal talk than political arm-twisting. For the White House, however, they resemble the first stage in a delicate process of handling the GOP caucus. Kagan may have the luxury of having been confirmed by the Senate (for her current position) in the not too distant past. But with the conservative base pining for a fight, the going bet is that her nomination becomes a proxy battle over the Obama agenda.
"Our expectation is that the Republican Party will put up a motivated fight," said one White House aide. "They will turn this into a venue to criticize the president and his agenda, most of which has little or nothing to do with Elena Kagan and her credentials."
Already the signs are there. In the immediate aftermath of the president announcing Kagan as his nominee, both the Republican National Committee and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo) pledged to put the issue of health care repeal at the forefront of the confirmation proceedings. Others in the Republican tent have suggested that the administration's various approaches to national security will play major roles in the questioning process.
"It is clear the Republicans will use this hearing is as a referendum on the Obama agenda," said a White House ally. "They will try to position the choice as being between a nominee who will rubber stamp the president's agenda and an independent mind, which is going to be hard to do given her appeal on both sides of the aisle."
It won't be all about Obama. Kagan's resume has particular areas that Republicans view as vulnerable. Her refusal to allow military recruiters on Harvard's campus (in protest of Don't Ask Don't Tell) is one. The dearth of judicial experience is another. But even when running through the list, conservatives working the SCOTUS fight acknowledge that the president represents an alluring target too.
"I think there will be a debate on a broad range of Obama administration policies," said Brian Darling, Director of Senate Relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But this confirmation battle will center on the nominee's qualifications as well because her resume is so thin."
To brunt the coming attack the White house is pursuing a strategy of making Kagan appear, above all else, accessible. The president's legislative liaison team, working alongside the press shop and with coordination from the chief of staff's office have outlined a nomination effort based largely off of the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor just one year prior. Kagan will sit down with Republicans and Democrats alike (though not the record 90 Senators who Sotomayor met last summer). Meet and greets will continue in the weeks ahead, aides say, in an effort to "gauge the temperature of individual Senators." Though one administration official said it would be fair to assume that Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okl.) -- who came out in opposition to Kagan six hours after she was nominated -- would not get any face time.
With respect to document disclosure, the administration will likely borrow from the John Robert's model. As with the confirmation proceedings for the current Chief Justice, a wide swath of Kagan's written record will be made public. But some records pertaining to her time in the Solicitor General's office will remain private, under the rationale of executive privilege.
"It's my anticipation that the committee and individual Senators will seek documents from her work via the Clinton Library," Press Secretary Robert Gibbs would only say on Tuesday. "And we look forward to working with them to fulfill reasonable requests."
There is, as of now, no exact timeframe for her consideration. But Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) suggested on Monday that a vote before the August recess was his desire. And a senior Senate staffer "observed" to the Huffington Post that Sotomayor's hearings stared 48 days after her designation and Robert's hearing would have started 49 days after his designation if not for Hurricane Katrina and Justice William Rehnquist's death.