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Leaders Forward Names to Bush

Reid Sees ‘Beginning’ in Talks

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced Tuesday that the White House has begun quiet, private consultations with Congressional leaders about possible Supreme Court nominees should a retirement occur.

Frist said that he has suggested several names to the White House as potential Supreme Court nominees, adding that he and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have exchanged ideas in private about who they think could be most easily confirmed.

Reid went a few steps further Tuesday and openly named a quartet of GOP Senators whom he has recommended to both Frist and White House Counsel Harriet Miers: Mike Crapo (Idaho), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.).

It wasn’t clear how seriously Reid himself took his suggestion about those Senators taking seats on the court — Crapo and DeWine each broke into laughter when informed of Reid’s vote of confidence — but the Minority Leader signaled that there has been some early discussion on the general topic of a retirement.

“It was a very nice conversation,” Reid said of his talk last week with Miers. “This is the beginning, I hope, of a consultation process.”

In comments last week Reid maintained that there had been no talk of Supreme Court nominations in his meeting with Miers. She was uncomfortable talking about a vacancy, Reid said at the time, while it remained unclear whether Chief Justice William Rehnquist or any other justice would step down.

Frist declined to name any of the legal minds he has put forward to President Bush, but said White House officials have “reached out to solicit advice” from the Hill.

“I know that’s being done,” Frist said in remarks after a speech on the judicial nomination process at the Heritage Foundation. Frist elaborated on how he thinks Bush and his advisers are adhering to the “advice and consent” clause of the Constitution regarding a potential court vacancy.

“They are reaching out for names. … That consultation process I know, in a very quiet way, is taking place,” he said, adding, “I have made some suggestions.”

With no retirement yet announced, it will now be all but impossible for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on a nominee before the August recess slated to begin four weeks from Friday. Even the most optimistic insiders say four weeks is the absolute minimum time frame needed to hold hearings, while others stretched the window to six weeks, creating the potential for mid-August hearings.

Frist did not reject that notion when asked about it at Heritage.

“No decisions have been made about August. … We would certainly entertain that,” he said.

He added that moving the process in an “efficient” way was critical in order to avoid too much “dead time” for liberal groups to launch attacks on a nominee.

All this comes as Supreme Court observers, like Vatican watchers awaiting white smoke to announce a decision on a new pope, remain on high alert for some sort of signal as to whether there will be a retirement. The fever pitch on a court vacancy has hit its highest level in the four and a half years of the Bush presidency, with the chief justice suffering thyroid cancer and a host of other associate justices well into their 70s and 80s.

Word even leaked out of the extremely tight-lipped White House of a Friday meeting of Bush’s top advisers — Miers, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove — to address the possible vacancy, a gathering first reported in Monday’s Washington Post.

Even Frist’s speech at Heritage appeared timed to address an anticipated vacancy, but instead was a general recounting of his previously voiced views on the nominating process, Democratic filibusters and how a Supreme Court nominee should be treated if a sitting justice retires. It broke no new ground until the question-and-answer session in which he outlined the private talks about consultation on a Supreme Court vacancy.

While recent tradition calls for a mid- to late-June retirement — five of the eight most recent departures have come in that time frame — it’s not unprecedented to have a later announcement. Justice William Brennan announced his retirement on July 20, 1990, according to Judiciary Committee data. The earliest recent retirement came when Justice Byron White declared his intention to step down on March 19, 1993.

Senate Democrats, led by Reid, have demanded that the White House engage in meaningful consultation with them about who the anticipated selection would be and have repeatedly cited the deal crafted by the so-called “Gang of 14” averting the showdown over changing rules to end filibusters. In that deal, the 14 Senators suggested White House consultation on a Supreme Court choice would make a filibuster much less likely.

For their part, the GOP Senators granted Reid’s blessing for a spot on the nation’s top court aren’t taking the idea too seriously.

“Me?” Crapo asked incredulously, pointing at himself. “I’m honored to hear that. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. I had not thought about that.”

While he was once considered for a federal judgeship early in Bush’s term, Crapo has firmly settled into the Senate and admitted to having no aspirations of landing a spot on the high court.

Informed of the other names on Reid’s list, he chuckled.

“Alright, I’m glad to be in good company,” he said.

Like Graham, DeWine is widely considered a turncoat by social conservatives for signing onto the Gang of 14 deal that averted the “nuclear option” and would be opposed by the activists most closely watching the potential Supreme Court pick.

He couldn’t contain his laughter at Reid’s suggestion he take a Supreme Court seat.

“Well, that’s interesting,” DeWine said.

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