Washington (AP) - Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Wednesday he shouldn't have called Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist, but said he was still concerned that she would bring bias to her decisions.
In a letter to supporters, the Georgia Republican said that his words had been "perhaps too strong and direct" last week when he called Sotomayor a reverse "racist," based on a 2001 speech in which she said she hoped the rulings of a "wise Latina" would be better than those of a white male without similar experiences. Gingrich's remarks created a furor among Sotomayor's backers and caused problems for GOP figures who have been pushing to bring more diversity to the party.
Gingrich conceded that Sotomayor's rulings have "shown more caution and moderation" than her speeches and writings, but he said the 2001 comments "reveal a betrayal of a fundamental principle of the American system - that everyone is equal before the law."
Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the high court.
Gingrich's reversal came as Sotomayor returned to Capitol Hill Wednesday for a second crucial set of meetings with senators. She has used the visits to reassure Republicans and Democrats alike that while her background has shaped her worldview, she believes in following the law and wouldn't let her life experiences inappropriately influence her judgments.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was "very glad" that Gingrich dialed back his rhetoric.
"I think that will help us have a real good discussion about the serious issues that the nation faces and that the court faces," Sessions said during a television interview.
But he also said he was still worried about Sotomayor's past statement.
"It basically suggests that a judge should not aspire to be objective since that's impossible to do. It's inevitable that your personal views would affect your decision-making. And to me, that's directly contrary to our great history of blind justice in America," Sessions added.
Sotomayor was visiting 10 Republicans and Democrats as the leaders of the Judiciary Committee were to meet separately to try to cut a deal on when her confirmation hearings should begin.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary chairman, wants the process to begin next month, with the goal of holding a final confirmation vote before Congress leaves in early August for a monthlong summer vacation. He's negotiating with Sessions, who says he'd rather go slower in delving into Sotomayor's voluminous record of rulings during her 17 years as a federal judge, with hearings to be held in September.
Obama is pushing for a quicker timetable, hoping to spare Sotomayor the potential pitfalls of a drawn-out public debate on her confirmation during the customary August news lull and get her seated in time to participate in discussions at the high court in September on which cases to hear when the session begins in October.
Sotomayor had an auspicious first day of face-to-face meetings - known as "courtesy calls" - with Senate leaders and Judiciary members, keeping mum as senators in both parties said positive things about her record and experience.
Still, Republicans said they're concerned about the 2001 speech, which has fueled suspicions among conservatives that Sotomayor fits the mold they have long accused Democrats of using for choosing judges: that of an activist who will bring her political views and personal agenda to interpreting the law.
Senators and their aides will soon be deluged with even more rulings and statements on which to base their defenses and criticisms of Sotomayor. She plans to respond soon to a detailed questionnaire that delves into personal and financial details, her experience as a lawyer and judge and even her selection as a nominee - including whether she was asked about any case or issue that could come before the Supreme Court, and what she said.
Most of her scheduled meetings Wednesday were with Judiciary members, but Sotomayor also was visiting several Senate women who don't serve on the panel, including Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Sessions spoke on CNN and Fox News.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Wednesday he shouldn't have called Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist, but said he was still concerned that she would bring bias to her decisions.