Senators reject Miers' responses

High court nominee's answers on questionnaire called `insufficient' and `insulting'


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers, troubled by a lack of enthusiasm on Capitol Hill, ran into more rough ground yesterday when senators from both parties rejected her responses to a questionnaire as "insufficient."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont complained that her answers were at best incomplete - Leahy said some lawmakers considered them "insulting" - and asked Miers to provide more detail, especially about her work in the White House as counsel to President Bush.

"Senator Leahy and I took a look at it and agreed that it was insufficient and are sending back a detailed letter asking for amplification on many, many of the items," Specter said during a news conference.

It was the latest misstep for Miers and the White House in a nomination that has attracted much criticism and mostly lukewarm support, even from the president's most ardent backers.

Specter said it was too soon to say Miers was "in trouble." But he described her nomination process as "chaotic" and said it was further confused by backdoor messages from the White House intended to reassure conservative leaders - some of whom went public about those discussions - about what she would be like as a judge.

"What I'm referring to are all of the forces which are at work out here commanding media attention and commanding public attention," Specter said. "There's been more controversy before this nominee has uttered a formal word than I have ever heard."

Specter and Leahy asked their colleagues to withhold judgment until after confirmation hearings that are scheduled to begin Nov. 7.

When Bush nominated Miers to the Supreme Court 16 days ago, he told skeptics that they would appreciate her virtues as soon as they got to know her. But after meeting with more than 20 members of the Senate and delivering the 57-page questionnaire, Miers seems no closer to winning them over than she was when she started.

Her courtesy calls over the past two weeks have gained her little ground. She had an awkward misunderstanding with Specter over what she told him about the right to privacy. She stumbled over a softball question from Leahy about whom she most admires among past Supreme Court justices. Even some Republicans who are inclined to support her came out of their meetings damning her with faint praise.

"She's a very decent lady," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, who said after their hour-long meeting that he reserved the right to vote against her.

The lackluster beginning of her campaign to win over the Senate raises the stakes for Miers, and the president, when she appears before the Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearings. Senators of both parties say her nomination will succeed or fail based on how well she performs.

Senators and aides have been reluctant to provide details of their meetings with Miers because they do not want to antagonize the White House. But some who met her described her as surprisingly reticent and, in a word used by more than one of them, "underwhelming." Even those who were impressed said that she offered up little of herself in conversation. "In these meetings, she has been very guarded," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

One senator found her much too quiet - literally. The senator had such a hard time hearing her that aides had to tell people outside the meeting room door to quiet down.

"She doesn't have the gravitas in terms of the constitutional issues," said another senator who has been critical of Miers. The nominee, this senator said, would not answer questions about whether she would recuse herself if issues involving her work with President Bush came before the high court. "Generally, when you hold these interviews, people want to show you what they know," the senator said. "She did not respond. Nothing came back."

Miers' questionnaire, which she delivered Monday, did little to improve her standing.

"The answers in the questionnaire that came up - the comments I've heard ranged from `incomplete' to `insulting,'" Leahy said. "Certainly, it was inadequate and did not give us enough to prepare for a hearing. We will need to have more."

The senators' request for more detailed answers was unusual in that it was sent just one day after Miers delivered the questionnaire, and in that both Republicans and Democrats made the request. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy - a Massachusetts Democrat and a veteran of 21 Supreme Court nominations - said he could not recall a similar situation in which senators from both parties jointly requested that a nominee resubmit responses.

Maura Reynolds and Janet Hook write for the Los Angeles Times.

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