Bush drops Miers after heat from Senate

Terence Hunt and Terence Hunt

WASHINGTON – Under withering attack from conservatives, President Bush abandoned his push to put loyalist Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court and promised a quick replacement yesterday. Democrats accused him of bowing to the “radical right wing of the Republican Party.”

The White House said Miers had withdrawn because of senators’ demands to see internal documents related to her role as counsel to the president. But politics played a larger role: Bush’s conservative backers had doubts about her ideological purity, and Democrats had little incentive to help the nominee or the embattled GOP president.

“Let’s move on,” said Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. “In a month, who will remember the name Harriet Miers?”

The withdrawal stunned Washington on a day when the capital was awaiting potential bad news for the administration on another front – the possible indictments of senior White House aides in the CIA leak case. Earlier in the week, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq hit 2,000 while consumer confidence in the economy took another plunge, reflecting Bush’s mounting political woes.

Democrats and Republicans braced for Bush’s next Supreme Court pick, which will be his third try since July 19. With Chief Justice John Roberts in place, the president had two pools of candidates from which to choose: conservative jurists who received serious consideration last time or somebody outside what Bush calls the “judicial monastery,” perhaps a current or former senator who would be welcomed by the GOP-controlled Senate.

Bush promised a new nominee “in a timely manner.” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he expected a replacement within days and wants to hold hearings by Christmas. Equally likely was that retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would remain on the court until early next year while her replacement is sought, a prospect that concerns many conservatives.

Miers will remain White House counsel.

Democrats urged Bush to nominate a relative moderate in the mold of O’Connor, who frequently cast the swing vote on abortion and other hot-button issues coming before the court this year. “He must listen to all Americans, not just the far right,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Bush blamed the Senate for her demise.

“It is clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House – disclosures that would undermine a president’s ability to receive candid counsel,” the president said shortly before leaving for Florida to assess hurricane damage.

There were few regrets on Capitol Hill, from either party. Republicans control 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats, but several GOP lawmakers were wavering on Miers amid intense lobbying from conservative interest groups.

Republicans and Democrats alike questioned her qualifications – Miers had never served as a judge – and Bush faced charges of cronyism for tapping his former personal lawyer for the highest court in the land.

Frist spoke with White House chief of staff Andy Card Wednesday night and offered a “frank assessment of the situation,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said. Coincidentally or not, Miers told Bush of her plans the same night.

“Somebody probably pulled her aside and said, ‘Harriet, it’s going to be a terrible experience and why go through with it, because they’ve already made up their minds,'” said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who blasted conservative groups for undermining the nominee. Other lawmakers welcomed the move.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a potential 2008 presidential nominee who is courting conservative activists, said he had been “feeling less comfortable all along” about the nomination.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of 14 women in the Senate, had challenged Miers’ nomination yet criticized Republicans for derailing it: “I don’t believe they would have attacked a man the way she was attacked.”

“The radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who had recommended Miers to the president. “They want a nominee with a proven record of supporting their skewed goals.”

Whomever Bush picks, a united GOP caucus holds the upper hand. Democrats would have to use their 44 votes (there is one independent) to try to block the nomination procedurally, a move loaded with political and logistical hurdles.

Republican consultants predicted that Bush would satisfy the conservatives who helped him to two election victories and now want their due. “The conservative movement has made it fairly clear from their standpoint that they would like someone that many people have been fighting for, or involved in these battles over 30 years,” said consultant Greg Mueller, who was deeply involved in the Miers nomination fight.

Before the president chose Miers on Oct. 3, speculation had focused on her and two other Bush loyalists: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s longtime friend, who would be the first Hispanic on the court; and corporate lawyer Larry Thompson, who was the government’s highest-ranking black law enforcement official as deputy attorney general during Bush’s first term.

A senior administration official said Gonzales and Thompson would probably run into similar criticism as Miers. They are Bush confidants with sparse records.

Other candidates mentioned frequently include conservative federal appeals court judges Samuel Alito, J. Michael Luttig, Priscilla Owen, Karen Williams and Alice Batchelder; Michigan Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan; and Maureen Mahoney, a frequent litigator before the high court. Alito was narrowly passed over for Miers, the official said.

A second senior administration official said it had become increasingly clear that Miers’ nomination was facing a collision on Capitol Hill that needed to be prevented.

Miers called Bush in his private residence at 8:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday to tell him of her decision. Twelve hours later, she walked into the Oval Office to hand him her withdrawal.