Harriet Miers, unlike previous Republican nominees, will face hostile questioning from both Democrats and Republicans when she appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Several Republican senators — including committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas — have said they won’t be cutting her any slack just because she’s a Republican nominee. And Republican staffers say privately that they’re researching her background as if she were a “third-party nominee.”
Meanwhile yesterday, a leading Christian conservative said the White House told him that some prospective Supreme Court nominees conservatives would have preferred withdrew their names from President Bush’s “short list” before the nomination — raising the possibility that Miss Miers wasn’t Mr. Bush’s first pick.
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said he spoke with Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove on Oct. 1 — two days before the Miers nomination — and was told that “Harriet Miers was at the top of the short list.”
Also on that list were several candidates that many conservatives say they would have preferred, Mr. Dobson said on his radio program that was recorded yesterday and will be broadcast today.
“Well, what Karl told me is that some of those individuals took themselves off that list,” he said, according to a transcript obtained last night. “They would not allow their names to be considered because the process has become so vicious and so vitriolic and so bitter that they didn’t want to subject themselves or the members of their families to it.”
White House officials could not be reached for comment last night.
Mr. Dobson also said that no one gave him any assurances that Miss Miers would rule any certain way in specific court cases but only that her judicial philosophy “was consistent with the promises that President Bush had made when he was campaigning.”
Mr. Specter had suggested he might call Mr. Dobson and Mr. Rove to testify before his committee about any inside knowledge they might have about Miss Miers — a threat that has only heightened the angst many conservatives feel about the nomination.
Republican staff lawyers on the committee — normally the ones building the case to confirm a Republican nominee — say they are despondent over Mr. Bush’s choice and some are actively working to thwart her.
“I don’t know anybody who is buying what the White House is selling here,” said one Republican staffer.
“They’re putting out a bunch of positive rhetoric, but they’re not putting any substance behind it,” said another.
Since her nomination last week, Republican staffers privately have complained bitterly that Miss Miers isn’t verifiably conservative. In one staff meeting last week in the office of Judiciary Committee chief counsel Michael O’Neill, a staffer reportedly cried in disappointment.
Mr. O’Neill sent out an e-mail yesterday warning staffers to tread carefully when talking about their dissatisfaction.
“I really cannot stress enough (as I did at our last meeting) that we need to be careful about what we say to the press. I obviously don’t control your access to the media, but I do care about you guys and don’t want anyone to get themselves in a tough spot,” Mr. O’Neill wrote. “We should not want to be out in front of our clients on an issue that is important to the President & Leadership.”
In that e-mail, Mr. O’Neill told staffers: “If your member wants you to circulate negative talking points or to talk to the press, that’s one thing.” But he warned against making negative comments “without your client’s permission. We’re all in this together.”
Still, numerous staffers have spoken about their dissatisfaction — but only on the condition that they not be named.
One Republican said Mr. Bush “promised us a Scalia or a Thomas, not a Souter,” referring to conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who have been praised by Mr. Bush, and Justice David H. Souter, the “stealth nominee” nominated by Mr. Bush’s father who usually sides with the liberal wing of the court.
A second meeting last week between staffers and White House officials devolved into a confrontational affair. Republican Senate aides who attended that meeting say the White House no longer returns their phone calls and e-mails seeking information about Miss Miers.
Republicans also say they were angered by some of the White House “spin,” such as the argument that Miss Miers is similar to conservative icon and former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist because neither had previous experience as a judge.
“That’s just grossly offensive,” said an aide.
Staffers also said many of them chuckled over a biographical “pocket card” of talking points about Miss Miers that the White House distributed for use by any senator wishing to praise the nominee. “They had to double-space it,” said one aide, laughing.
That attitude is shared by other Hill conservatives. A conservative lobbyist for Republican judicial nominees said that fighting for the Miers nomination has been “utterly joyless.”
“I don’t even want to be in politics anymore,” said the lobbyist. “Why don’t I just give up and move to suburban Maryland and work in communications for some big corporation?”