A new test for Bush

President withdraws Miers nomination, eyes new choice for high court

Supreme Court Nomination

October 28, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, chastened by a backlash from core Republican supporters, scrapped the embattled nomination of his friend and counsel Harriet E. Miers for the Supreme Court, and began what is expected to be a quick and high-stakes push to name a new successor for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Bush could move within days to tap a replacement for Miers, amid sighs of relief from conservatives at the demise of a candidate they mistrusted and indignation from Democrats who accused Bush of pandering to the extreme right by abandoning her.

Miers' withdrawal came at a time of mounting woes for Bush and the day before a special counsel could add to his troubles by announcing indictments against top White House aides.

Bush announced that he had "reluctantly accepted" Miers' decision to step aside, which she conveyed to him in a phone call last night, and would move "in a timely manner" to replace her.

Miers' withdrawal, after a bitter debate over her qualifications for the court, left Bush facing a dilemma: He could tap a strict conservative, such as appeals court Judge Edith H. Jones, who would delight his base but provoke a partisan fight on Capitol Hill. Or he could choose a candidate with broader appeal, such as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a Texan and Bush confidant who would be the court's first Hispanic. But a Gonzales nomination would reawaken anger among Bush's strongest supporters that he is not doing enough to steer the court to the right. And Gonzales is vulnerable to charges that he is a presidential crony.

Bush characterized Miers' decision as a valiant step by a loyal aide to protect the principle of executive privilege, which he said would have been trampled had he complied with senators' requests to see documents detailing legal guidance Miers has given him while White House counsel.

"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.

But the withdrawal also was an acknowledgement of the failure of an intense White House effort on Capitol Hill to sell the Miers nomination - troubled from the start by a revolt from conservatives who said her lack of experience as a judge and scant record of legal writings left doubt about her judicial philosophy. At the heart of lawmakers' requests for documents about Miers' White House work was uncertainty among Republicans about what legal positions she has taken and what kind of judge she would be.

"I am concerned that the confirmation process presents a burden for the White House and our staff that is not in the best interest of the country," Miers wrote in a letter to Bush, which she delivered to him in the Oval Office shortly before he announced her withdrawal. Miers will stay on as White House counsel, where her duties include helping Bush select judicial nominees.

The development came at a difficult time for Bush, who has been working to appear focused despite deep political problems and as his White House is shaken by the specter of indictments of top aides in the CIA leak probe.

The troubles are increasing the pressure on Bush from both parties as he looks toward a new nominee.

Republican leaders praised Miers' decision to step aside and urged Bush to move swiftly to find another candidate.

Bush should choose a nominee "he is confident has outstanding legal skills and who shares his judicial philosophy," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who had expressed concern about Miers. Democrats accused Bush of caving in to conservative pressure and warned him not to do so again when he selects a new nominee.

"The radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. Bush "should reject the demands of a few extremists and choose a justice who will protect the constitutional rights of all Americans."

Miers' decision to withdraw came abruptly Wednesday night. In meetings and discussions with senators, it became clear to Miers and other top Bush aides that she was not gaining the support she would need from Republicans to win confirmation and that she would face hearings that could prove embarrassing to her and the president, people close to the nomination said.

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, told White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. of the tough obstacles Miers would have faced during a phone call Wednesday evening, described by Frist's spokesman Bob Stevenson as "frank and candid."

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