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Senate presses for quick Miers confirmation

President Bush on Monday nominated Harriet Miers, White House counsel and a loyal member of the president's inner circle, to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Nominee Harriet Miers Visits Lawmakers
Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers listens as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, answers a reporter's question at the Capitol Monday. If confirmed, Miers would replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Hours after President Bush nominated his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court, Senate Republicans said they would press for confirmation by Thanksgiving — a tight timetable that allows fewer than eight weeks for lawmakers to review her record, hold hearings and vote.

Bush's choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a lawyer who has never been a judge makes it harder for both liberals and conservatives to figure out where Miers stands on issues such as abortion.

“She has devoted her life to the rule of law and the cause of justice,” Bush said, announcing his choice from the Oval Office with Miers at his side. “She will be an outstanding addition to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

If confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, Miers would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the nation’s highest court and the third to serve there in its history.

Miers, 60, said she was humbled by the nod. “If confirmed, I recognize I will have a tremendous responsibility to keep our judicial system strong and to help ensure the court meets their obligations to strictly apply the laws and Constitution,” she said.

The selection of Miers came shortly before Chief Justice John Roberts took his seat on the court for the first time Monday after breezing through the nomination process. Miers helped push his nomination through the Senate.

If approved by the Senate, Miers would replace O’Connor, a critical swing vote on the court who helped uphold the right to abortion and affirmative action.

Within hours of Bush’s announcement in the Oval Office, Miers headed for the Capitol to begin courtesy calls on the senators who will vote on her nomination.

How will Democrats react?
There was a long list of staunchly conservative judges that Democrats were poised to fight, but Miers was not among them. Still, the lack of a judicial record and Miers loyalty to Bush have raised concerns among Democrats.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Miers’ ability to distance herself from administration objectives was key. “Ms. Miers’ views on and role in these issues will be important for the Senate to examine,” Leahy said in a statement. “It is important to know whether she would enter this key post with the judicial independence necessary when the Supreme Court considers issues of interest to this administration.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee for administrative oversight and the courts, said in a statement that “we know even less about Harriet Miers than we did about John Roberts and because this is the critical swing seat on the court, Americans will need to know a lot more about Miers' judicial philosophy and legal background before any vote for confirmation.”

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid was complimentary, issuing a statement that said he likes Miers and adding “the Supreme Court would benefit from the addition of a justice who has real experience as a practicing lawyer.”

At the same time, he said he looked forward to the “process which will help the American people learn more about Harriet Miers, and help the Senate determine whether she deserves a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.”

Reid had personally recommended that Bush consider Miers for nomination, according to several sources familiar with the president’s consultations with individual senators. Of equal importance as the White House maps its confirmation campaign is that the Nevada Democrat had warned Bush that the selection of any of several other contenders could trigger a bruising partisan struggle.

Conservatives dividedBush, his approval rating falling in recent months, had been under intense pressure to nominate a woman or a minority.

“She will strictly interpret our Constitution and laws. She will not legislate from the bench,” Bush said of Miers.

Some conservatives felt Miers had already established herself as one of them. “There’s every indication that she’s very similar to Judge Roberts — judicial restraint, limited role of the court, basically a judicial conservative,” said Republican consultant Greg Mueller, who works for several conservative advocacy leaders.

But other conservatives had wanted a nominee with a judicial track record that showed clear conservative views.

Republican strategists who spoke on condition of anonymity said they would have to work hard to assure the support of some of the more conservative Republicans in the Senate. All 55 GOP senators voted to confirm Roberts.

Eugene Delgaudio, president of the conservative group Public Advocate, described the nomination as “a betrayal of the conservative, pro-family voters whose support put Bush in the White House in both the 2000 and 2004 elections and who were promised Supreme Court appointments in the mold of (Clarence) Thomas and (Antonin) Scalia. ... When there are so many proven judges in the mix, it is unacceptable this president has appointed a political crony with no conservative credentials.”

Added Troy Newman of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group: “The small pieces of information we do know are disappointing. For example, she’s Southern Methodist, notoriously pro-abortion.”

Little is known publicly about Miers’ position on abortion, an issue of surpassing importance to outside groups on both ends of the political spectrum.

When delegates to a national American Bar Association convention adopted a position in favor of abortion rights in 1992, she worked as head of the Texas state bar to force a reconsideration of the issue by submitting it to a referendum by the 360,000-membership. “This issue has brought on tremendous divisiveness and loss of membership," she said in early 1993.

Miers unsuccessfully argued that the ABA should have maintained its neutral stance on abortion.

White House cites precedent
The president offered the job to Miers on Sunday night over dinner in the residence. He met with Miers on four occasions during the past couple weeks, officials said.

Eager to rebut any charges of cronyism, the White House produced statistics showing that 10 of the 34 Justices appointed since 1933 had worked for the president who picked them.

And 20 Supreme Court justices previously had never served as judges before getting on the high court.

While House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president had seriously considered 12 to 15 contenders for the job. He said more than one Democratic senator had broached Miers’ name to the president, but declined to identify them.

Low-profile nominee
Without a judicial record, it's difficult to know whether Miers would dramatically move the court to the right. She would fill the shoes of O'Connor, a swing voter on the court for years who has cast deciding votes on some affirmative action, abortion and death penalty cases.

Known for thoroughness and her low-profile, Miers is one of the first staff members to arrive at the White House in the morning and among the last to leave.

When Bush named her White House counsel in November 2004, the president described Miers as a lawyer with keen judgment and discerning intellect — “a trusted adviser on whom I have long relied for straightforward advice.”

Miers had been leading the White House effort to help Bush choose nominees to the Supreme Court, so getting the nod herself duplicates a move that Bush made in 2000 when he tapped the man leading his search committee for a vice presidential running mate — Dick Cheney.

Intense questioning ahead
Liberals say the White House should be prepared for Miers to be peppered with questions during her Senate confirmation because she has no record.

“Choosing somebody who is not a judge would put that much more of a premium on straight answers to questions because there would be that much less for senators and the public to go on when looking at such a nominee's judicial philosophy,” says Elliot Mincberg, counsel with the liberal People for the American Way.

The Supreme Court meets for nine months a year. Its first week will be shorter than usual, with justices hearing two cases Monday — one that asks if companies must pay for workers’ time spent changing into uniforms, and a second that questions whether states may tax fuel sold on Indian reservations.

Justices were not meeting Tuesday because of the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah. The two cases Wednesday include a Bush administration appeal over Oregon's physician assisted-suicide law and a case that will clarify how parents of disabled children can contest education services.

Later this year, several significant cases will be argued, including a review of a parental notification law from New Hampshire and an appeal involving a claim that an anti-abortion group's protests violated federal racketeering laws.

Another high-profile case asks if the government can withhold federal funds from colleges that bar military recruiters in protest of the Pentagon's “don't ask, don't tell” policy on homosexuality.