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 Thursday. 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The White House said Miers had withdrawn because of senators’ demands to see internal documents related to her role as counsel to the president.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 wants hearings by Christmas
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. Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said she will remain on the court until her replacement is confirmed.
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 controversial 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 said Miers withdrew because of a bipartisan effort in Congress to gain access to internal documents related to her current role as counsel to the president.
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.
“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,” Bush said. “Harriet Miers’ decision demonstrates her deep respect for this essential aspect of the constitutional separation of powers — and confirms my deep respect and admiration for her.”
Miers notified Bush of her decision at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to a senior White House official who said the president will move quickly to find a new nominee.
A White House source, who had been working on Miers’ confirmation, told NBC News that the withdrawal was the result of a “perfect storm” of events — including a call to the White House Wednesday from a conservative Senate Judiciary Committee member who “hoped” the nomination would be withdrawn.
In a letter dated Thursday, Miers said she was concerned that the confirmation process “would create a burden for the White House and our staff that is not in the best interest of the country.”
She noted that members of the Senate had indicated their intention to seek documents about her service in the White House in order to judge whether to support her nomination to the Supreme Court. “I have been informed repeatedly that in lieu of records, I would be expected to testify about my service in the White House to demonstrate my experience and judicial philosophy,” she wrote.
“While I believe that my lengthy career provides sufficient evidence for consideration of my nomination, I am convinced the efforts to obtain Executive Branch materials and information will continue.”
Waves of criticism
Miers’ nomination has been under overwhelming criticism ever since Bush announced her selection on Oct. 3. There were widespread complaints about her lack of legal credentials, doubts about her ability and assertions of cronyism because of her longtime association with Bush.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called Miers capable but added, “This clearly was the wrong position for her.”
The nomination drew fire across the political spectrum and caused a rebellion among the conservative core of Bush’s supporters who doubted her qualifications and wanted a nominee who they felt would be a reliable vote against abortion, affirmative action and other hot-button issues.
On Capitol Hill, there was meager support among Republicans for Miers.
“I’m not surprised and it shows the maturity of the party,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of the most vocal critics of Miers in the Senate. “They wanted a clear nominee.”
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., had supported Miers’ nomination and said “the radical right wing of the Republican Party killed” her chances. “They want a nominee with a proven record of supporting their skewed goals.”
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.”
Before Bush chose Miers, speculation focused on Miers 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.
Other candidates mentioned frequently included conservative federal appeals court judges J. Michael Luttig, Priscilla Owen, Karen Williams, Alice Batchelder and Samuel Alito; Michigan Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan; and Maureen Mahoney, a well-respected litigator before the high court.
NBC’s chief legal correspondent, Pete Williams, noted that Miers’ decision was exceptional, since only seven of 150 nominations have been withdrawn in the history of the court.
Miers had been expected to respond Thursday to a new set of questions from senators after her first responses were criticized by Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and senior Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
The committee had scheduled Nov. 7 confirmation hearings for her, but Specter and Leahy said Miers’ answers to their original questions were “incomplete” and “insufficient,” one of several setbacks Miers faced over her nomination.
While none of the Senate’s 55 Republicans had announced opposition to her, several groups like Concerned Women of America had called for her withdrawal.
“We believe that far better qualified candidates were overlooked and that Miss Miers’ record fails to answer our questions about her qualifications and constitutional philosophy,” said Jan LaRue, the conservative group’s chief counsel.
O’Connor to stay on longer
O’Connor has been a swing voter on numerous emotional social issues, and more are set to come before the Supreme Court.
On Nov. 30, the court will hear arguments on New Hampshire’s parental notification law for abortion, which a lower court said is unconstitutional because it lacks an exception allowing a minor to have an abortion to protect her health. O’Connor has been expected to vote to strike down the law. That case also could determine the legal standard for challenges to other states’ abortion laws.
Also in late November the court may decide whether it will hear the Bush administration’s appeal of a 2003 federal law that bans the type of late-term operation known as partial-birth abortion. Lower courts have said the law is unconstitutional, because it lacks a health exception.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.