WASHINGTON - Elena Kagan told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that her political outlook is "generally progressive," but the glimpses she offered of her legal views defied Republican efforts to pigeonhole the type of Supreme Court justice she would be.
During the first day of questioning at her confirmation hearings, Kagan said she respects legal precedent that upholds people's right to own guns and that she supports the use of military commissions to prosecute enemy combatants - positions favored by many conservatives.
But she also suggested that a controversial requirement in the new federal health care law that most Americans obtain coverage has a legal basis - a question that is likely to come before the courts. She indicated that she differed with a recent Supreme Court decision that struck down limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns. And she adamantly defended her reluctance as a Harvard Law School dean to sponsor military recruiters on campus because of the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the armed forces.
During more than eight hours of friendly questions by Democratic senators and sharper grilling by Republicans, Kagan, 50, remained somewhat guarded. At times, she retreated into broad statements about the workings of the Constitution or recited legal precedent on polarizing questions without divulging her personal views. Nevertheless, for a nominee who has spent her career in government and academia - without displaying much of an ideology - her testimony provided the strongest clues to date of her beliefs.
Kagan noted that she has worked for two Democratic presidents, including currently as President Barack Obama's solicitor general. But at several points during the hearings, she played to conservatives. She said she has "the greatest admiration" for Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the high court's most conservative members. She lauded as "a great lawyer and a great human being" Miguel Estrada, a prominent conservative who has been a GOP cause celebre since President George W. Bush's nomination of him as an appellate judge was thwarted by Senate Democrats.
Such an explicit bipartisan appeal was a central theme of Kagan's performance as the televised hearings provided Americans the first opportunity to hear from her since her nomination in May to become the 112th justice - and the fourth woman - to serve on the nation's highest court.
Her demeanor contrasted markedly with that on Monday, the first day of the hearings, when she sat silently for hours, wearing a slightly uncomfortable expression, until she somberly read a prepared opening statement. On Tuesday, she loosened up. She smiled. She showed frequent flashes of wit.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has a 12-7 Democratic majority, is almost certain to forward her nomination to the full Senate, which probably will schedule a final vote in late July. By the end of the afternoon, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., one of the panel's most conservative members, told Kagan that she is smart and "tough as nails."
The hearing resumes at 9 a.m. today.