WASHINGTON — As the Senate begins debate today on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor with the outcome assured, the only remaining questions are whether the National Rifle Assn. can claim to have swayed votes against her and whether President Obama can claim a victory for bipartisanship.
For the first time, the NRA has weighed in against a Supreme Court nominee, urging senators to vote "no" on Sotomayor.
So far, however, eight of the 36 senators who won endorsement from the NRA have said they will vote to confirm her. The most recent were Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both of Montana, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. The others are Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mel Martinez of Florida and Democrats Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Leaders of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence said the defections revealed that the NRA's clout was less than advertised.
"This vote is a test of the conventional wisdom that they are an 800-pound gorilla capable of scaring up votes," said Doug Pennington, a spokesman for the group, which supports gun control. "Well, so far, they have been unable to keep the votes of the senators they endorsed in the last campaign."
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the Sotomayor vote was important but might count for less than a future Senate vote on gun control. "The NRA has yet to determine the weight of this vote, but we have informed people that this vote will count," he said.
In opposing Sotomayor, the NRA focused on her vote to uphold a New York law that prohibited the possession of a gang weapon known as nunchaku sticks.
"We believe that any individual who does not agree that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a fundamental right and who does not respect our God-given right of self-defense should not serve on any court, much less the highest court in the land," the NRA told senators.
The high court is likely to decide within the next year whether to extend the reach of the 2nd Amendment and to protect gun owners against local and state laws that restrict firearms.
Last week, after the NRA declared its opposition, two veteran Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, came out against Sotomayor. They were joined Monday by John McCain of Arizona, last year's GOP presidential nominee.
"An excellent resume and an inspiring life story are not enough to qualify oneself for a lifetime of service on the Supreme Court," McCain said of Sotomayor. "I do not believe she shares my belief in judicial restraint."
Senators are expected to voice their views over the next three days, with a vote possible by the week's end.
The early vote count suggests she will do better than Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., President George W. Bush's second nominee, who was confirmed on a 58-42 vote, but not as well as Bush's first pick, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who won a 78-22 vote.
The White House had hoped that a significant number of Republicans would support Sotomayor because she had a moderate record. But the judiciary committee voted along party lines, with Graham the only Republican to join with the panel's 12 Democrats.
Nonetheless, when asked about bipartisanship, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pointed Monday to the impending Sotomayor debate.
"There's an interesting vote that we'll see in the next couple of days on the Supreme Court, and we will see where everybody is on bipartisanship," Gibbs said.