White House Seeks Democrats' Ideas on High Court Vacancy

Times Staff Writer

In the more than four years that George W. Bush has been president, Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl has rarely received a call from the White House. But last week, the phone rang and the low-profile Democrat suddenly found himself on the line with Bush's chief counsel, Harriet Miers.

Miers is leading the White House effort to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy. Kohl, though declining to comment extensively on their chat, said he told Miers that he was grateful for the call and hoped that there would be more.

"I gave her my number and told her to call anytime," he said with a bemused smile.

As the White House works to nominate a successor to retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, some Democrats doubt that the president is likely to take their advice.

But the White House, long accused of giving short shrift to all members of Congress, is in the midst of an extensive campaign to consult with senators, including Democrats, about the president's choice.

And in a sign of the intense interest surrounding the selection, Bush unexpectedly got some public advice from his wife.

On a visit to South Africa, the first lady told reporters that she hoped the nominee would be a woman. "I would really like for him to name another woman," she said in an interview with NBC News.

Asked about the comment at an Oval Office event, the president said: "Listen, I get her advice all the time. I didn't realize she'd put this advice in the press. We're definitely considering people from all walks of life, and I can't wait to hear advice in person when she gets back."

Bush met for breakfast Tuesday to discuss the court vacancy with four Senate leaders: Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the committee's senior Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Afterward, Reid and Leahy said they believed that the president's outreach was sincere.

Ever since O'Connor said she would be stepping down, Democrats have asked the president to consult them about his choice of a successor, warning that they would wage a fierce battle if the president chose someone they considered too ideological.

"Why not have someone who would unite us, not divide us?" Leahy said he asked the president, echoing one of Bush's signature lines from his first presidential campaign.

Reid and Leahy said they discussed the names of several potential nominees with conservative beliefs that they thought would draw enough Democratic votes to be confirmed.

"I thought he was listening," Leahy said. "I've known him for a long time and I can usually tell when he's going, 'OK, OK, OK, enough of this.' And I think this was a case when he was listening."

In his comments to reporters, Bush said he was open to all recommendations from the senators. "They've got strong opinions, and I wanted to hear them," Bush said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president's staff had consulted more than 60 senators, including more than half of the chamber's 44 Democrats.

Many of the Democrats who say they've been called are on the Judiciary Committee, which conducts hearings on Supreme Court nominees. White House officials also have placed calls to members of the so-called Gang of 14, the seven Democrats and seven Republicans who joined to defuse a showdown this spring over filibusters of judicial nominees.

At least a handful of other Democratic senators have found themselves fielding calls from the White House, including Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Obama said he had yet to speak to a White House official, having traded phone messages for several days. But he said the jury was still out on whether the president's consultation efforts were genuine.

"How effective the consultation is will be determined by who the actual nominee is," he said.

Obama said he accepted that the president would nominate someone more conservative than Obama might like.

"If we get a nominee who is conservative and may still elicit significant objections from the Democrats, but who nevertheless is considered well within the mainstream of legal opinion, then that would indicate the president isn't just going through the motions," he said.

During their White House discussion, Specter and Reid said they urged the president to consider nominees other than sitting federal judges, saying they thought that the Supreme Court might benefit from the addition of a former lawmaker or governor from outside the "judicial monastery."

Some conservatives have expressed concern that the president may pay too much attention to what the Democrats are saying.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative advocacy group, is circulating an Internet petition saying the president needs to "stand strong against the liberal onslaught. He must not give in to the call for a consensus candidate."

Bush is under considerable pressure from conservatives to use the vacancy to nominate a justice who would be a more reliable conservative vote than O'Connor was. One potential nominee they have tried to scuttle is Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, voicing concerns that he might support abortion rights

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), known as a strong abortion foe, said Tuesday that he had requested a meeting with Gonzales to talk about the attorney general's view of the Constitution.

Brownback insisted that he was not seeking to discuss Gonzales' views on abortion: "That to me is not where the debate is. It's about the whole of the Constitution."

O'Connor's decision to retire has raised the question of whether Bush should name a woman as her successor, as Laura Bush suggested.

Last month, the White House had narrowed its search to three or four conservative judges -- all white males -- to succeed Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has cancer.

But when Rehnquist did not retire and O'Connor did, the White House shifted gears.

Rather than move promptly to announce a nominee, the president's aides expanded the search to add women, including three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

"There is definitely more emphasis on women now," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, one of several conservative activists who have met with White House officials to discuss the Supreme Court nomination. "This is not just being politically correct. This is a historic seat. I'd like to see a woman appointed in her place."

The three female judges under consideration have conservative credentials. They are Edith Brown Clement, 57, of Louisiana; Edith H. Jones, 56, of Houston; and Priscilla R. Owen, 51, of Austin.

Times staff writer David Savage contributed to this report.

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