WASHINGTON — Floor debate over Sonia Sotomayor's history-making nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court began late Tuesday -- and though her confirmation seems assured, it will not happen painlessly.
Senate Republicans are determined to use the occasion to mount a broad attack on what they view as a liberal legal agenda favored by Sotomayor and the Obama administration.
Almost 30 lawmakers are expected to take the floor in coming days to criticize the nominee and perhaps lay down a marker in advance of the next Supreme Court vacancy.
Even so, there appears to be little doubt about the outcome this time around.
None of the majority Democrats has come out against the New York federal appeals judge, and at least six Republicans plan to cross party lines and support her. A final floor vote is expected Thursday or Friday, and a simple majority of senators is needed for confirmation.
Though the GOP long ago abandoned any idea of filibustering, draining much of the drama out of the final vote, Republicans have mounted a more vociferous campaign against Sotomayor than many observers expected.
The floor debate will serve as an extension of that, Republican aides said, giving the party an opportunity to voice its concerns over gun rights, racial preferences, property rights and other issues that arose during the confirmation hearings.
Some senators also maintain that President Obama and Sotomayor are practitioners of "identity politics," seeking to use the law to favor minority groups at the expense of other Americans.
"I have expressed the view since this process began that we are at a fork in the road," Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during his opening remarks Tuesday.
"Will we continue to adhere to the classical idea of American jurisprudence? Or will we follow results-oriented judging in which judges cease to be committed to equal justice?" he said.
Sessions suggested that Sotomayor had misrepresented herself during her three days of testimony.
He also said he did not believe she could be impartial, pointing to a much-criticized 2001 speech she delivered at UC Berkeley in which she said that she hoped a "wise Latina" judge would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male would.
"I came to this process with an open mind regarding Judge Sotomayor," Sessions said. "But certain aspects of her record troubled me . . . whether she is deeply committed to the ideal of objectivity and impartiality."
The Democratic chairman of the judiciary committee, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, pushed back.
"Those who struggle to pin the label of judicial activist on Judge Sotomayor are met by her solid record of judging based on the law," Leahy said. "She is a restrained, experienced and thoughtful judge who has shown no biases in her rulings."
Sotomayor, 55, has been on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals since 1998 and was a federal district judge in New York before that. She was nominated by Obama in May to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter. If confirmed, she will be the Supreme Court's first Latino justice and only its third woman.
During the debate this week, Democrats plan to highlight Sotomayor's extensive experience as a prosecutor, corporate lawyer and judge.
"You can't find a nominee with better experience than Judge Sotomayor," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "She has seen the law from all sides."
They will also continue to rally civil rights groups around the nomination, warning Republicans that they could pay a heavy political price for opposing the Bronx-born judge, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a child of Cuban immigrants, said Sotomayor's confirmation would mark a turning point in the nation's history.
"When Judge Sotomayor takes her seat at the Supreme Court, America will have come of age," he said.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) praised Sotomayor's background, even as he declared that he could not support her because of concerns about her record.
"I feel pretty deeply about Hispanic people as I do all people," Hatch said. "Nothing would make me happier to see her become a great justice on the United States Supreme Court. I hope she proves me wrong."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) lamented that instead of "celebrating the first Hispanic justice," Democrats were being forced to fend off Republican attacks, which he called "strange and strained efforts to impose right-wing political orthodoxy on the courts that protect our individual rights."
In response, Sessions took to the floor again. "I don't want anyone to think what we're doing here is 'strange or strained,' " he said. "I believe we're asking fundamental questions about law and justice in America."