- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The White House yesterday sought to move away from a debate over Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers’ religion to tout her qualifications for the high court, returning to the strategy devised before last week’s conservative outcry against the nomination.

President Bush held a photo opportunity with six former members of the Texas state Supreme Court, who were lined up by the White House last week to deliver testimonials on behalf of Miss Miers.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Miss Miers met with several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and at least one Democratic senator was unimpressed by her.

But in her meeting with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, according to the New York Democrat, Miss Miers said she has not, contrary to a report in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, promised to overturn the Supreme Court decision that made abortion a right.

At the White House, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch said, “When people get to know [Miss Miers] and understand her like we do, they’ll find her an excellent choice. And she’ll be a legend on that court before her career is finished.”

White House aides working on the Miers confirmation are lining up press conferences, distributing talking points that omit any mention of religion and selling the 60-year-old lawyer as a female pioneer.

“Instead of following a plan to go sell her, they were rocked on their heels and, in the course of trying to placate conservatives, they got off message, saying things that weren’t originally scripted, like her religion,” said one top GOP strategist with close ties to the White House who said the administration was “caught off guard by the conservative opposition.”

“They did kind of get tangled up in what they were doing, and they finally realized they had to get back to their plan.”

Another Bush insider said there was never a plan to “discuss her faith or her attendance at an evangelical church. That just sort of happened.”

But the nomination drew some of its first strong criticism from the left yesterday, with a key Senate Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee panning Miss Miers’ performance in a private meeting and comparing her unfavorably to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

“Based on what I heard in the office, I couldn’t tell you how I would vote on Harriet Miers because she offered very, very little in terms of her own experience in government and very, very little on her judicial philosophy,” Mr. Schumer told reporters in the hallway outside his office. “To be very honest with you, I have no idea what it is.”

Miss Miers was so inscrutable that Mr. Schumer said it was unwise to proceed with confirmation hearings Nov. 7, as has been discussed. He also compared yesterday’s meeting to his first Roberts meeting, which he said was “far more illuminating.”

“I’m going to give her a break,” Mr. Schumer said. “She’s not a constitutional lawyer. She never purported to be a constitutional lawyer. But she clearly needs some time to learn about these cases.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter gave a more favorable report of his meeting with Miss Miers, citing her handling of civil cases and her time in local government.

“There’s been a lot of talk about her record being thin, but I think she has an extensive record,” he said.

Mr. Specter said that in his 90-minute meeting, he tried to give Miss Miers some ideas about what to expect, saying that the nomination “is going to rise or fall on the hearing” and that he wants “to be sure as chairman that these hearings are not a game of gotcha.”

In a Wall Street Journal column yesterday, John Fund reported that during an Oct. 3 conference call of leading conservatives, Justice Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court and Judge Ed Kinkeade, a Dallas-based federal judge told participants they believed Miss Miers would vote to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which made abortion a constitutional right.

But according to Mr. Schumer, Miss Miers disputed those and other reports.

“She disavowed that completely,” he said, quoting Miss Miers as saying, “No one knows how I would rule on Roe v. Wade.”

The White House spent most of last week dealing with fallout from comments by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a participant in the Oct. 3 meeting, who said Bush adviser Karl Rove assured him that Miss Miers was, as an evangelical Christian, a reliable conservative. Mr. Bush himself briefly mentioned Miss Miers’ religion in the Oval Office last week.

The GOP strategist said that the White House has decided to shift to selling the nominee to a broader audience, no longer focusing on conservative critics.

“They will continue behind the scenes to try to work with conservative leaders, but they’re more focused right now on what to sell to the American public and to the Senate,” the strategist said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and a Judiciary Committee member, also met with Miss Miers yesterday as part of that White House sell, but declined to say more than that she got to know Miss Miers as a person.

“She’s a very, I think, basically, rather shy person and has a very soft manner. It’s very pleasant,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

Asked whether Miss Miers had greater problems with Republicans or with Democrats, Mrs. Feinstein responded, “I think she has problems with both.”

At the White House yesterday, Mr. Bush met briefly with the half-dozen former members of the Texas Supreme Court. Afterward, the president said Miss Miers “is a uniquely qualified person to serve on the bench.”

“She is smart, she is capable, she is a pioneer,” Mr. Bush said. “She’s been consistently ranked as one of the top 50 women lawyers in the United States. She has been a leader in the legal profession. She’s impressed these folks. They know her well. They know that she’ll bring excellence to the bench.”

John Hill Jr., who served as chief justice for the Texas Supreme Court from 1985 to 1988, thanked Mr. Bush for the nomination.

“We’re excited about it, and we’re here to try to let the people of America know what we all know, that she is an absolutely fantastic person and a great lawyer, and will make a great judge,” Mr. Hill said.

The former justices are scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill today to carry the same message to senators.

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