WASHINGTON — In the face of criticism from the left and right, President Bush insisted Tuesday that Harriet Miers is the nation’s best-qualified candidate for the Supreme Court and assured skeptical conservatives that his lawyer-turned-nominee shares his judicial philosophy — and always will.
Facing questions from conservatives who were disappointed over his father’s choice of Justice David Souter, who has become one of the most liberal members of the court, Bush insisted that Miers was a strict constructionist and a conservative and would stay that way.
“I’ve known her long enough to know she’s not going to change, that 20 years from now she will be the same person with the same judicial philosophy she has today,” Bush said during his first full-fledged news conference since May. “She’ll have more experience. She’ll have been a judge, but nevertheless the philosophy won’t change, and that’s important to me.”
The president said he had never asked Miers about her position on abortion — “there is no litmus test” — even as he gave conservatives his personal assurance that she’s one of them.
“I know her character. She’s a woman of principle and deep conviction. She shares my philosophy that judges should strictly interpret the laws and the Constitution of the United States, and not legislate from the bench,” he said.
Dismissing suggestions of cronyism, Bush said: “I picked the best person I could find. People know we’re close.” Bush has known Miers for more than 10 years, first as his personal lawyer and most recently as a White House counsel.
In an opening statement, Bush urged the Senate to approve Miers and called on lawmakers to reduce unnecessary spending while meeting needs for hurricane relief.
The president also fielded questions on other issues, among them:
- Hurricane relief. Bush said he would work with Congress to “make real cuts” in non-security spending to help in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. “The private sector will be the engine that drives the recovery of the Gulf Coast,” he said. Bush insisted the government could afford to pay for rebuilding the Gulf and fighting in Iraq. Polls show growing numbers of Americans want to cut money from Iraq to pay for Katrina recovery.
- Iraq policy. Bush claimed progress on training Iraqi forces — a key measure for when American troops can begin coming home — despite last week’s statement from the top U.S. commander there that only one Iraqi battalion, down from three, is ready to fight without U.S. help. “More and more Iraqis are able to take the fight to enemy,” the president said, adding that more than 80 Iraqi army battalions are fighting alongside U.S. troops, and that 30 Iraqi battalions are capable of taking the lead in combat. Gen. George Casey told Congress that only one Iraqi army battalion was ready to go into combat without U.S. support. He also argued that the Iraqi army overall is getting stronger.
- CIA leak investigation. The president refused to comment on an issue looming over the White House — the investigation into the leak of a CIA agent’s identity. With two top White House officials a focus of the inquiry, Bush was asked whether he would fire anybody indicted in the probe. “I’m not going to talk about the investigation until it’s complete,” he said.
- Avian bird flu. Bush said he was considering whether the U.S. military should be used to help quarantine part of the country in the event of a pandemic of Avian bird flu. “I’m not predicting an outbreak,” he said. “I’m just suggesting to you that we need to be thinking about it. ... I think the president should have all ... assets on the table to deal with something this significant.”
Miers dominates news conference
The president’s choice of Miers dominated the news conference. While no senator has come out against the nomination, conservatives and liberals alike are questioning whether she was the most qualified candidate for the high court.
Some Democrats are accusing Bush of cronyism, a charge he faced after the bungled Katrina recovery effort led to the firing of the government top disaster official, a Bush loyalist. Some of Bush’s own supporters are expressing dismay that he chose a White House lawyer with no judicial experience over several well-documented conservative jurists.
The criticism from the right was notable because conservatives have typically rallied to his side. They were particularly alarmed at reports she was a Democrat in the 1980s, when conservative icon Ronald Reagan was president, and at comments by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who said on Monday that “I like Harriet Miers.”
Bush needs to keep conservative senators in line to push Miers’ nomination through the Senate. More broadly, Bush can’t afford to alienate his political base now that Democrats and many moderate voters are telling pollsters they’re unhappy with his job performance.
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Several conservative leaders, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have given Miers a qualified endorsement — saying, in effect, that they have faith in Bush’s judgment.
Several others, including commentator Rush Limbaugh, have criticized the pick.
The White House has enlisted Vice President Dick Cheney and scores of other Bush loyalists to lobby conservatives on Miers’ behalf.
Polls suggest Bush’s political troubles may by hurting Republican chances in next year’s elections — perhaps even the 2008 presidential race. He shrugged off a question about election politics. “2008?” Bush said with a laugh. “My head is not there yet. My head is in 2005.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.