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Summer showdowns

Congress | Democrats, comfortable in their majority status, push forward while Republicans try to slow down the health care and Sotomayor trains

WASHINGTON-Democrats have spent this week arguing that the clock is ticking on two of the biggest issues before Congress this summer: health care reform and the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

But as Democratic leaders set deadlines for tackling both big ticket items, Republicans have wasted no time in firing back that they need more time.

It looks like the summer showdowns in Congress will feature Democrats pushing forward on major changes they say the country needs as Republicans push back. But it can't quite be called the unstoppable force versus the immovable object, because Democrats enjoy large enough congressional majorities to eventually bypass their Republican colleagues.

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But those Republicans have made it quite clear so far this week that their voices will be heard in both revamping health care and remaking the Supreme Court. Even if they lose the actual congressional votes, they hope to win the public debate.

To that end, since returning from their Memorial Day recess, Congressional Republicans are pursuing a new theme: that the Democrat-backed health care reform proposals are bad for the country and should not be rushed.

With a self-imposed deadline to have a health care bill drafted by August, Democrats hope to pass the legislation in September. But Republicans are arguing that the health care reform train is leaving the station too fast. Overhauling what amounts to one-sixth of the nation's economy should not be subjected to arbitrary deadlines, Republicans have said. It is a statistic GOP lawmakers have repeated numerous times this week.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Republicans haven't even seen a health care bill yet. Americans, he added, are getting increasingly worried about any reform that includes a government-run insurance option in light of the growing government takeovers of other industries like banks and automobiles.

"There is growing concern about the way in which and the speed in which the government is taking over our economy," he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee this week set a July 13 start date for the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. This puts Sotomayor, seeking to become the nation's first Hispanic justice, on the fast track for confirmation. The hearings likely would last several days and be followed by a full Senate vote on her nomination.

"There is no reason to unduly delay consideration of this well-qualified nominee," said Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaking on the Senate floor. "In selecting this date I am trying to be fair to all concerned. I want to be fair to the nominee and allow her the earliest possible opportunity to respond to the attacks made about her character."

In his speech, Leahy made indirect reference to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's remarks on Twitter, late retracted, calling Sotomayor racist.

Sotomayor, currently a judge on a New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals, is under fire by conservatives for her rejection of a New Haven, Conn., firefighters' lawsuit charging reverse discrimination. The firefighters sued when officials threw out the results of written promotion tests because no African-Americans qualified. The case, Ricci v. DeStefano, is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

An early hearing date is exactly what Senate Republicans have long said they do not want. Many have said they do not think a hearing could be done before the August recess. So moments after Leahy made his announcement, Republicans lashed the confirmation dates onto their talking points memo that the Democrats are moving too fast.

"I think this rush is ill-advised," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Republican from Alabama charged with leading the minority side during the hearings.

But, in naming the July start date, Democrats said they are following recent historical precedent. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid argued that the schedule follows the timeline used when the Senate considered the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court in 2005. The Senate confirmed Chief Justice Roberts in 72 days. To track that schedule Sotomyor's nomination vote should occur before the start of the Senate's August recess.

Reid told reporters at the Capitol that delaying Sotomayor's nomination until the fall would make it the longest wait time for a Supreme Court nominee in history.

"There's no reason this can't be done," Reid said. "If [Republicans] want to take more time in the history of the country for a nominee, then something is wrong."

Republicans quickly took to the Senate floor to protest the move. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Sotomayor has ruled on 10 times as many cases as Roberts did.

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