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Miers’ Withdrawal Throws Wrench Into Senate Calendar

The withdrawal of Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court nominee Thursday morning threw the Congressional calendar into turmoil, prompting the possibility of a confirmation battle right up to the Christmas holiday if the White House pushes for an immediate nomination process.

The White House and Senate leaders didn’t address the issue of the timing of the new nominee in the wake of Miers’ withdrawal, although the previous target for confirmation was sometime before Thanksgiving or, at the latest, early to mid-December.

That target for the next nominee is now simply impossible to meet, as the easiest nominees, such as new Chief Justice John Roberts, take from six to eight weeks to get through the process of being nominated, fully vetted, heard by the Judiciary Committee and passed to the Senate floor for a vote.

Some aides and observers were floating the idea that the Senate’s formal role in the process — public hearings and a floor debate before a confirmation vote — wouldn’t take place until January, because the Supreme Court’s calendar did not dictate the need for a new associate justice until mid-January.

According to the calendar posted on its Web site, the court’s last oral arguments for this year will be held Dec. 7, with its last business meeting slotted for Dec. 12. The court won’t be reconvening again until a conference meeting on Jan. 6, with the first oral arguments of the new year slated to begin Monday, Jan. 9.

Under that timeline, it’s possible that Judiciary could hold its hearings the first week of January, report out the nominee in the second week and have a floor vote somewhere in the middle of the month.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) vowed last week to close down the chamber just before Thanksgiving. But before Miers was nominated, White House and Senate officials had privately emphasized the need to put a new nominee on the bench for the start of the new year.

Under that scenario, President Bush would have to offer a new nominee quickly, within a week or so, and preferably one who has been recently vetted for a circuit court position or another high-level government position. If that happened, Judiciary could hold hearings during the week of Dec. 5-9, then vote the nominee out of committee the following week and have a floor debate and vote the week of Dec. 19-23.

Democrats signaled they supported a go-slow approach and urged Bush to take his time with the next nomination to ensure it’s not a difficult and prolonged battle.

“This president now should take his time,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Judiciary member.

Democrats could benefit from the fact that moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said she’ll remain on the court as the search for her successor continues.

Republicans — particularly conservatives who have been hoping to tilt the court to the right with a nominee more conservative than O’Connor — were hoping for a quicker nomination.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who had been a strong backer of Miers, a fellow Texan, said there would be too much confusion with O’Connor sitting in on cases that she might not ultimately be able to vote on when they are decided later in the year.

“I do think it’s important that we get a new nominee soon,” Cornyn said.