In new signs of eroding support for Harriet E. Miers, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman sent her a sharply worded list of questions Wednesday on constitutional law, and one of the nation’s leading grass-roots evangelical organizations called for the withdrawal of her Supreme Court nomination.
Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s largest Christian advocacy groups, changed its “wait-and-see” position after reading speeches she gave in the early 1990s in which she supported, among other things, “the freedom of the individual woman’s right to decide for herself whether she will have an abortion.”
The speeches “indicate a radical feminist worldview, a penchant for judicial activism, race and sex quotas, a liberal characterization of the abortion debate and government spending, and an inability to articulate her positions clearly,” the group said in a statement.
“We do not think there is anything she could say at her hearing that would satisfy our concerns,” Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, said in an interview.
White House officials played down the development, repeating that Miers would have a chance to prove herself to critics at Senate confirmation hearings scheduled to begin Nov. 7.
Miers’ nomination has come under increased pressure in recent days as conservative opposition against her has coalesced. Two websites urging her withdrawal -- www.withdrawmiers.org and www.betterjustice.com -- began operating this week, and anti-Miers ads began airing Wednesday on cable TV and radio.
The nomination process has also been hampered by a lack of enthusiasm even from White House allies. One of them, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sent Miers a letter Wednesday listing 10 questions he planned to ask during the confirmation hearing, most of which concerned treatment of terrorist detainees and limits on executive branch authority.
“What assurances can you give the Senate and the American people that you will be independent, if confirmed, and not give President Bush any special deference on any matter involving him which might come before the court?” Specter asked in the letter.
Specter prepared similar letters for the previous Supreme Court nominee, Chief Justice John G. Roberts. But in light of complaints that Miers lacks legal stature and is too close to the president to be a check on executive power, Specter’s questions to her had a notable edge.
“Without inquiring in any way concerning the advice you have given the president because of the doctrine of executive privilege, what standard would you apply, if confirmed, in recusing yourself on any subject where you have advised the president?” Specter wrote.
Miers, who serves as White House counsel, was to have provided the Senate Judiciary Committee with revised answers to parts of a questionnaire by Wednesday.
Last week, Specter and the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), asked her to resubmit those answers, saying her initial response was “insufficient.”
Miers’ resubmission had not arrived on Capitol Hill by late evening. White House officials had said they would be delivered by midnight.
Senators of both parties have expressed frustration with a lack of information from the White House about Miers’ qualifications to sit on the nation’s highest court. Liberals fear she is too politically conservative to protect individual rights, and fear that her personal friendship might make it hard for her to make decisions against the president. However, liberals have kept largely silent, allowing the stiffest criticism to be voiced by conservatives.
Republican senators, concerned about her lack of judicial experience and the complaints of social conservatives, have asked the White House to provide more documentation to demonstrate Miers’ judicial philosophy. One of them is Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who met with Miers on Wednesday and came away undecided about supporting her.
“My central question still remains to be answered, however: Is there objective, written evidence from prior to her nomination that fully shows that she has a truly consistent and well-grounded conservative judicial philosophy?” he said in a statement issued after their meeting.
Miers was Bush’s personal lawyer and advised him while he was governor of Texas. In his five years as president, she has held three White House jobs: staff secretary, deputy chief of staff for policy and White House counsel.
While Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court has generated little enthusiasm among Republicans, no senators have said they would vote against her. She appears capable of getting the 51 votes she needs in the Senate to win confirmation.
However, social conservatives have warned the White House that her Senate confirmation would come at an electoral price for the Republican Party. Social conservatives helped mobilize Christians around the country to elect and reelect Bush as president, and so far they have long been seen as being among his most ardent supporters.
In part because of assurances that Miers is an evangelical Christian, leaders of several evangelical organizations, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have expressed support for her.
But in recent days, those endorsements have faded amid more forceful calls for her withdrawal from a range of social-conservative groups and leaders, who have joined together to run the two anti-Miers websites. Concerned Women is among the largest and most influential organizations to join their ranks.
According to Concerned Women for America’s website, the group was founded in 1979 by Beverly LaHaye to “protect and promote Biblical values for women and families -- first through prayer, then education and finally, by influencing our elected leaders and society.”
The group is active in pressing a social agenda that includes opposition to abortion and gay marriage, among other issues.
Despite growing signs of discontent among its allies, White House officials insisted Wednesday that neither Miers nor Bush was considering backtracking on her nomination.
“We’re continuing to move forward on the confirmation process,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said at his daily press briefing.
LaRue of Concerned Women said that reports about Miers’ speeches, which were among documents provided to the Judiciary Committee last week, were the final straw that led the group to openly oppose her nomination. She pointed in particular to a 1993 address by Miers to Executive Women of Dallas, a nonprofit organization of professional women and those in upper management.
According to a transcript of her remarks, Miers expressed the view that women should be allowed to make their own decisions about abortion -- a sharp departure from her stance in 1989, when as a candidate for the Dallas City Council, she pledged to work against Roe vs. Wade and promote a state measure outlawing abortion.
In the speech, Miers said that “abortion clinic protesters have become synonymous with terrorists” and that the courts were being “besieged” by cases challenging a woman’s right to choose abortion.
“The ongoing debate continues surrounding the attempt to once again criminalize abortions or to once and for all guarantee the freedom of the individual woman’s right to decide for herself whether she will have an abortion,” Miers told the group.
She added: “The underlying theme in most of these cases is the insistence of more self-determination. And the more I think about these issues, the more self-determination makes the most sense. Legislating religion or morality we gave up on a long time ago.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, another large Christian advocacy group that has declined to endorse or oppose Miers, called her language “very disturbing.”
“Miss Miers’ words are a close paraphrase of the infamous Roe vs. Wade decision,” Perkins said in a message to supporters. “Her use of terms like ‘criminalize abortion’ to characterize the pro-life position and ‘guarantee freedom’ to describe the pro-choice position should have sounded alarms in the White House during the vetting process.”
Times staff writer Richard Serrano contributed to this report.