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GOP Doubts Build Over Court Choice

Times Staff Writers

President Bush faced a growing Republican backlash Wednesday over the nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court, with several GOP senators threatening to oppose her confirmation and top conservative activists questioning her qualifications during a tense confrontation with White House advisors.

In an effort to quell the discontent, administration aides and allies were dispatched to plead with lawmakers and party activists to give Miers -- a longtime Bush friend and lawyer -- a chance to prove herself.

But on Capitol Hill, some GOP senators made it clear that they were not now in Miers’ corner. And at a weekly meeting in Washington of leading conservatives, many in the crowd berated Ed Gillespie, the White House point man on judicial nominations, over the president’s choice.

“With this nomination, we have ratified the strategy of the left and they have won,” said Richard Lessner, former executive director of the American Conservative Union. “With this pick, the White House has ratified what the left did to Bork.”

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He was referring to Robert H. Bork, President Reagan’s conservative nominee for the court who was rejected by the Senate after liberals challenged his well-documented views.

Many conservatives are complaining that they don’t know enough about Miers, who has never served as a judge or argued a case before the Supreme Court, to know whether she would support their causes.

The swelling doubts about her contrasted with the early reaction to Bush’s previous Supreme Court nominee, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who won near-unanimous accolades from Republicans for his intellect and qualifications before winning easy Senate confirmation.

As of now, the conservative doubts about Miers do not seem likely to derail her nomination. But her confirmation might come at a price for Republicans.

With the GOP bedeviled by questions about the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and ethics questions facing congressional leaders, the party’s base could become demoralized, undermining Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.

On Wednesday, skepticism about Miers’ nomination came from some GOP senators who normally are party loyalists.

“There are a lot more people -- men, women and minorities -- that are more qualified in my opinion by their experience than she is,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in a television interview. “I don’t just automatically salute or take a deep bow anytime a nominee is sent [to the Senate].... I have to find out who these people are, and right now, I’m not satisfied with what I know.”

Lott’s sentiments echoed those of a number of fellow conservative Republican senators, including John Thune of South Dakota, George Allen of Virginia and Sam Brownback of Kansas -- all of whom are thought to harbor presidential aspirations.

“The jury is out,” Thune told reporters. “It’s still an open question [whether he would support Miers]. And I think there are folks who are keeping their powder dry until we learn more.”

More moderate senators, however, were warm -- even effusive -- as Miers continued making the rounds on Capitol Hill to introduce herself to the lawmakers.

“Anyone who sits down with her for an extended period of time will feel very comfortable with her,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings on Miers.

“I expect her to be confirmed,” DeWine added. “I see no reason I would not vote for her. The only reason I’m not announcing it today is that I think you ought to have hearings first.”

The mood was quite different at the meeting of about 200 conservatives held by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, a key White House ally.

Many expressed feelings of anger and betrayal to Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and others sent to the gathering by the White House.

“Trust has been broken,” said one attendee who asked to not be named. The meeting participant told Gillespie that efforts to reassure conservatives “won’t work,” adding, “You can’t unbreak an egg.”

The crowd applauded as one speaker after another peppered Gillespie with questions regarding Miers’ past political contributions to Democrats, her votes as a member of the Dallas City Council and whether her nomination smacked of cronyism, according to meeting participants.

Some told Gillespie that Bush’s personal assurances about her commitment to conservative causes were not sufficient, given the lack of any written evidence of Miers’ views.

Lessner said in an interview later that Bush should have picked from the long list of qualified “conservative heroes.”

He added that Miers’ nomination sent a message from Bush “that a jurist with established conservative credentials cannot be confirmed for the Supreme Court. He has capitulated to that view, and that’s why this is a major loss for the conservative movement.”

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said he planned “to sit on the sidelines and wait” for proof that Miers was someone who deserved “enthusiastic support.”

Norquist stayed above the fray. “We trust the president’s instincts,” he said after the gathering.

Gillespie, after later attending a weekly Senate policy luncheon, insisted that the discontent among some conservatives was “a natural part of the process.”

He added: “I think she will draw strong bipartisan support in the end.”

At a meeting on Capitol Hill of the so-called Gang of 14 -- the centrist senators from both parties who have a pact to head off filibusters of judicial nominees -- Democrats and Republicans emerged saying that Miers appeared to be a promising nominee.

“It’s still early in the process, but there’s nothing at the present time that would disqualify her or trigger” a filibuster, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said.

Still, the White House faced a growing chorus of caustic comments from conservative opinion leaders, including syndicated columnist George Will. He wrote that the Senate should reject Miers, lest lawmakers allow Bush to turn the Supreme Court into a “private plaything useful for fulfilling whims on behalf of friends.”

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, despite entreaties Tuesday by Vice President Dick Cheney, told Fox News on Wednesday that the Miers nomination marked a “squandered opportunity” to further deplete the power of Democrats in Washington and ensure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

“People have been working for this for 30, 40 years ... and that’s why this is such a letdown to so many people,” Limbaugh said.

Republican and Democratic senators said Miers had an obligation to detail her views during her confirmation hearings, expected to begin in early November.

“I think that for conservatives out there, she is going to have to be very forthcoming in front of the committee to give them the comfort level they need ... to feel confident that she is truly in the mold that the president indicated,” Thune said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said, “I think because the Supreme Court has become so pivotal in our life, and is such a deeply divided court, that it’s more and more important that [nominees] answer as many questions as possible” during hearings.

Several Democrats complained during Roberts’ confirmation hearings last month that he avoided answering questions about his views on contemporary issues, such as abortion rights. Roberts said he did not want to prejudge matters likely to come before the court.

Leahy also criticized Bush for saying he would refuse to release any of the documents relating to work Miers had done in the White House, where she has served as the president’s legal counselor since early this year. Previously, she was a White House aide.

“The president said she’s the most qualified person in America to have this job. I’d like to see some of what that is based on,” Leahy said after meeting with Miers for an hour.

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Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.


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