WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan encountered skeptical Senate Republicans and enthusiastic Democrats on Wednesday as she spent the day making private visits to key senators who will be voting on her confirmation.
Kagan's meetings, usually about half an hour each, came as senators began to sharpen their perceptions of the 50-year-old solicitor general, whom President Barack Obama nominated Monday to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
While her path to confirmation by midsummer still appears smooth, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky set the GOP tone early, going to the Senate floor before his meeting and questioning her independence.
"She's never had to develop the judicial habit of saying no to an administration, and we can't simply assume that she would," McConnell said.
Kagan has never been a judge. She has been the dean of Harvard Law School and an adviser to former President Bill Clinton, and she helped Vice President Joe Biden, who was then the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, in 1993 during confirmation hearings for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She also has been a private corporate lawyer and a law professor.
Kagan got warm support Wednesday from Democrats. She "left me confident that she is the right choice," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The visits are the first Senate ritual that freshly minted nominees must follow. No one expects senators or the nominee to emerge from such courtesy calls and say anything controversial — at least not right away — and there were few indications that much of substance came up.
"It's political theater," said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
Kagan's visits, which started Wednesday with Senate leaders and Judiciary Committee members, will continue all week as she aims to meet with all 100 senators. Once the visits are over, the confirmation process will enter its next phase: the investigation by Judiciary Committee staff, as well as scrutiny by the news media. It's not uncommon for new questions to arise during this period, which is expected to last a month or two.
Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings are expected to begin in early summer, and Kagan probably will spend about a week testifying. The Senate hopes for a final vote by Aug. 6.