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Fight Over Nominee Heats Up

Administration officials kept up a campaign Wednesday to reassure Senate conservatives that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers would not disappoint them, as centrists from both parties tentatively embraced her and, for now at least, swore off the use of a filibuster to derail the nomination.

White House aide Ed Gillespie, who has agreed to continue the part-time advisory role he played during the successful nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States, briefed GOP Senators at their weekly policy luncheon about Miers’ strengths as a nominee, repeating the mantra that President Bush has been consistent in his nominations of conservatives for judicial vacancies.

In a lengthy session with reporters afterward, Gillespie predicted that the questions surrounding Miers would begin to quell on the GOP’s right flank. “Conservatives are learning more every day,” he said of the nominee, who is a relative unknown to an overwhelming majority of the Senate.

Gillespie said that the White House, perhaps as early as today, would unveil another former Senator to take the job of shepherding the Miers nomination through the Senate, now that former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) has returned to his role as Manhattan district attorney in the TV series “Law & Order.”

“That worked so well,” Gillespie said of Thompson’s role in Roberts’ nomination process.

The immediate task for the yet-to-be-announced former Senator will likely be to privately address the concerns of the chamber’s right wing.

Despite the administration’s efforts to sell Miers to Senators in the past three days, conservatives ranging from Sens. George Allen (R-Va.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) are continuing to voice worries about the selection.

Their fears center on Miers’ lack of a record on any of the big social issues of the day.

Thune said the tension among activists was “palpable,” with many worried that on the court, Miers could drift toward a centrist ideology, meaning that the right would have missed a long-sought chance to reshape the court.

In particular, Thune said the White House has, at least temporarily, provoked an unproductive fight among conservatives at a time when the president’s base on the right needs to be strengthened because of ongoing challenges over the Iraq war, emergency spending and ethics issues affecting GOP leaders.

“A right and less-right fight is something that doesn’t help us,” he said.

He added that Roberts and, assuming she’s confirmed, Miers will rule on many key subjects throughout 2006 and that the GOP base will closely watch those decisions to ensure they square with a conservative agenda.

“If they don’t, then there’s going to be some blowback heading into the ’06 elections,” Thune said.

And in an ironic twist, Thune and other conservatives began to sound very much like Senate Democrats prior to the Roberts hearings, demanding highly detailed answers about a nominee’s views.

“She’s going to have to be very forthcoming at the hearings,” Thune said. “She’s gotta sell this.”

Democrats discussed the nomination at their luncheon but not at great length, said one lawmaker present. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not take any heat from Democrats over his embrace of Miers upon her nomination Monday. Reid had proposed Miers as a possible pick to Bush more than two weeks ago, but he has not promised to support on the floor.

The Democratic lawmaker suggested that as long as Republicans and conservatives were voicing their own displeasure with the Miers selection, Democrats were going to intentionally stand down and let that story line unfold.

After a meeting of the “Gang of 14” — the seven Republicans and seven Democrats whose deal averted a showdown over judicial filibusters in May — most Senators were pleased with the initial signs of the Miers’ announcement.

“This nomination did not set off any alarm bells with any of us,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who hosted this meeting, said there’s a chance the group might not have to meet again to discuss the issue. “It doesn’t look like this is a situation that will require use to get back together,” he said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voiced caution that it was still early in the process and that their group, mostly consisting of moderates, still had much to learn about Miers. Still, she said, no one in the group expressed opposition to her.

“We all feel that we need more information,” she said.

One member of the group privately admitted that there was some “chortling” over the idea that it was the more conservative wing of the GOP that was attracting the spotlight.

Gillespie said Miers would meet the expressed needs of the more than 80 Senators who were consulted by White House officials before the selection was announced. The two things that Democrats and Republicans advocated, according to Gillespie, was a nominee who was from outside the judicial branch and one who was a woman.

And Republicans specifically asked for a nominee who would adhere to the GOP belief in not legislating from the bench, Gillespie said, adding that Reid was not the only Senator to suggest Miers to the White House.

“I know that her name came up on the Republican side,” he said.

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