The nation’s largest conservative women’s group yesterday called for the withdrawal of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination as The Washington Times learned that a key promoter of the nomination had suddenly quit the White House lobbying effort.
Leonard A. Leo, who had been on leave from the Federalist Society to be chief conduit between the White House and conservatives, said last night that he has returned to his full-time job as executive vice president of the conservative legal group.
The move, which surprised even Republicans working closely with Mr. Leo, came as the Concerned Women for America called for the nomination to be withdrawn in part because of reports of a 1993 speech in which Miss Miers appeared to agree with some of the grounds for the legal right to abortion.
“We find several aspects troubling, particularly her views on abortion and a woman’s ‘self-determination,’ quotas, feminism and the role of judges as social activists,” said Jan LaRue, CWA’s chief counsel. “We do not believe that our concerns will be satisfied during her hearing.”
Mrs. LaRue’s group, which has about a half-million members and seeks to “bring biblical principles into all levels of public policy,” had taken a “wait-and-see” stance on the nomination, but has become the latest group to join growing opposition to Miss Miers on the right. The coalition, WithdrawMiers.org, was founded Monday by several pro-family groups led by conservative icons Richard Viguerie and Phyllis Schlafly.
But meanwhile, the White House and Republican leadership emissaries are quietly telling conservative interest groups and pundits opposed to the Miers nomination that they are out of step with their rank and file.
Conservative activist Michael D. Brown said internal GOP polling being cited by party and administration emissaries purports to show that “70 percent of self-identified conservative voters have a favorable impression of Harriet Miers.”
The emissaries are warning that ordinary Republicans beyond the Washington Beltway continue to support the nomination because they trust President Bush, even after several weeks of conservative opposition to her, according to several conservative Miers critics who have been courted by the White House.
The administration is “disappointed that conservatives inside the Beltway are fighting among ourselves over this nomination, and it fuels the fires for our enemies, for Democrats,” said Mr. Brown, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director.
However, conservative opposition to the Miers nomination stiffened on Capitol Hill, in response to a report in The Washington Post yesterday that she argued that “self-determination” should be the guide for resolving issues such as abortion and school prayer.
“The underlying theme in most of these cases is the insistence of more self-determination,” she said in the 1993 speech. “The more I think about these issues, the more self-determination makes the most sense. Legislating religion or morality we gave up a long time ago.”
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the quotations from the speech “are troubling and raise concerns.”
“It raises some questions we have to ask about in the committee hearing,” said Mr. Brownback, who is undecided on the nomination. “It’s something we’re going to need to probe.”
“I think she has a high hill to climb,” Mr. Brownback said. “I think she remains having that hill to climb. I’m not satisfied with the information we’ve received to date.”
In the same speech before a meeting of the Executive Women of Dallas, Miss Miers also said, “The ongoing debate continues surrounding the attempt to once again criminalize abortions or to once and for all guarantee the freedom of the individual woman’s right to decide for herself whether she will have an abortion.”
Tony Perkins, founder of the conservative Family Research Center, said the words Miss Miers chose were clearly the language of pro-choice advocates.
“This is very disturbing,” said Mr. Perkins, who has carefully remained undecided on the nomination. “Miss Miers’ words are a close paraphrase of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision.”
Miss Miers’ 1993 speech appears to depart from a pledge she made four years earlier to the pro-life Texas United for Life during a campaign for Dallas City Council. She promised to “actively support legislation that would reinstate Texas’ 1973 abortion law that prohibited all abortions except those necessary to prevent the death of the mother.”
“I find these remarks deeply troubling,” Mr. Perkins said. “For so long, there was an absence of information about her judicial philosophy and this tends to point to a judicial philosophy of activism.”
Mr. Leo said last night, however, that his departure from the White House effort has nothing to do with a lack of faith in the Miers nomination.
“This is consistent with what I was going to do,” he said. “I have to return to the Federalist Society to take care of business there.”
Mr. Leo has come under intense criticism from conservative jurists — particularly among members of the Federalist Society — for promoting Miss Miers, whom they say lacks the clear conservative judicial philosophy that Mr. Bush promised in his bench nominees. Several members of the Federalist Society who know Mr. Leo have said that they think he is only backing Miss Miers out of loyalty to the Bush administration rather than support on the merits.
Mr. Leo said that he announced his departure in an Oct. 19 e-mail and that it was “effective immediately.”
But as of yesterday, even Republicans working closely with him on the nomination said they had no idea Mr. Leo had relinquished his duties.
Mr. Leo had worked as the “campaign manager,” organizing the massive support among conservatives for the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., according to a source close to Mr. Leo. But with the deep disappointment among conservatives over the Miers nomination, “there’s really no campaign here,” the source said.
For their part, liberal senators were hardly impressed by Miss Miers’ Dallas speech, pointing out the same inconsistency between it and other known Miers stances.
“But the $64,000 question remains: Who is Harriet Miers? In some ways, the more we hear, the less we know. Recently released speeches by Harriet Miers only further confuse and confound,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
“She spoke favorably of the importance of ‘self-determination’ in cases involving moral issues such as abortion and prayer, yet four years earlier, when running for Dallas City Council, she filled out a questionnaire from a pro-life group stating her support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. And even more confusing, one year before that, she gave $1,000 to the Democratic National Committee,” Mr. Schumer said.
Skepticism among conservative activists is leading the White House to argue privately that infighting among conservative leaders and opinion makers is hurting Mr. Bush’s reputation and only serves to make Republicans look bad.
Conservatives are also at odds over whether Democrats will attempt to filibuster her nomination and whether Senate Republicans leaders should respond with the so-called nuclear option, thus forcing an up-or-down vote by simple majority.
“As Republicans and conservatives, we’ve been fighting for this principle of an up-or-down vote on judicial appointments for years, and we can’t pull back now just because conservatives are at odds over her qualifications,” a Republican leadership representative said yesterday.