WASHINGTON - Conservatives stepped up their criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday, but it was unclear how far Senate Republicans were willing to go to create bumps in what appears to be a smooth road to confirmation for President Barack Obama's first high-court choice.
Even as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY., suggested Sotomayor let racial bias cloud her rulings, he and other GOP senators refused to say whether they would accede to conservative activists' demands to try to delay a final vote to confirm her until September.
At the same time, the National Rifle Association raised what it called "very serious concerns" about Sotomayor based on her stance on weapons rights, yet it stopped short of opposing her, citing its "respect for the confirmation process."
The fresh critiques of Sotomayor came as the American Bar Association, a national law-yers' group, rated her "well-qualified" to be a justice after its members conducted scores of confidential interviews with her colleagues and pored through her record and writings to assess her integrity, qualifications and temperament.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to open hearings Monday on Sotomayor's nomination to replace Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she would be the first Hispanic to serve there.
The NRA - influential with Republicans and some conservative Democrats - said senators should question Sotomayor on her views on the Second Amendment and curbs on the right to bear arms, and threatened to oppose her if her answers were "hostile or evasive." In a letter to senators, Chris W. Cox, the group's executive director, said Sotomayor had been "dismissive" of the Second Amendment, particularly in an appeals court ruling that held it only limits the federal government - not states.
Meanwhile, McConnell said Sotomayor's federal appeals court ruling last year against white firefighters alleging reverse discrimination leaves the impression that she allows her agenda to affect her judgment and she favors certain groups.
"It is a troubling philosophy for any judge - let alone one nominated to our highest court - to convert empathy into favoritism for particular groups," McConnell said.
Sotomayor was part of an appeals panel that dismissed the firefighters' challenge to a decision by New Haven, Conn., to scrap a promotion test because too few minorities qualified. The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court last week.
Conservative leaders are pressing Senate Republicans to delay a final vote on Sotomayor until September, frustrated with what they call the party's lackluster approach to the debate.
GOP senators have given no indication they will do so.
McConnell was silent Tuesday when asked whether he would back such a delay, while Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said "we'll see" whether it would be appropriate.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman, warned the GOP against holding up a vote on Sotomayor's confirmation.