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Timeline Uncertain for Next Court Nominee

The White House and Senate Republicans are headed toward a timeline crunch as they prepare for the next Supreme Court confirmation fight, presenting GOP leaders with a difficult choice of how to proceed in the wake of a botched nomination.

If President Bush moves quickly to offer a new nominee, Senate Republican leaders could try to quickly push through hearings and on to a floor vote — a fight that would run against the grain of historical timelines for confirmations and also require them to overcome an increasingly emboldened minority. But if Republican leadership opts for a timeline more in line with history and settles for January hearings, the new nominee could be left dangling for more than two months before hearings commence while liberal interest groups attempt to attack and define the selection.

By the end of last week, some Senators and aides appeared to prefer holding confirmation hearings and a full vote for the next Supreme Court nominee after the New Year, citing an already packed Congressional calendar.

In a series of GOP planning meetings Friday, the general consensus was that it would take almost six weeks or more from the time Bush makes his nomination before the nominee could be fully vetted and appear before the Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings, according to one aide. That scenario would push the committee proceedings into mid-December, leaving very little time for floor debate and a vote before Christmas if the hearings go smoothly.

Officially, no decisions have been made on timing, and top Republicans said last week that the most important decision affecting the process will be when Bush makes his pick.

“Certainly, if there’s a nomination soon, we would want to move forward with it soon,” said Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

And Bush, in remarks after the indictment of a top aide to Vice President Cheney, said that the work of the nation would go on, including a Supreme Court nomination he said would be coming “pretty soon.”

In the run-up to the selection of Chief Justice John Roberts last July, the White House appeared to take into consideration the potential for leaving a nominee exposed to attacks for too long a period before hearings. Bush waited almost three weeks after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made her retirement announcement before choosing Roberts, which came a week before Congress adjourned for the August recess.

That move served to shorten the window of time Democrats and liberal activists had to define Roberts, while naming Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s successor immediately would have meant a delay of almost two months before hearings began.

But any effort at moving to push the new nomination through quickly in December could be met with resistance from both Democrats and Republicans, many of whom are anxious to wrap up an eventful legislative season and head home early for the holidays.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), one of the conservatives whose resistance to ex-nominee Harriet Miers helped scuttle her nomination, said last week that he thinks that there is not enough time for the full Senate to take up a new nomination. Instead, Thune suggested that the Judiciary Committee might take up hearings on the new nominee and begin the process in mid-December, setting the stage for the Senate to return in early or mid-January and approve the nominee before Bush’s next State of the Union address.

“It’s more realistic to get it teed up,” Thune said of the process.

But several senior GOP aides noted that holding hearings in mid-December and then waiting nearly a month to have a full vote on the Senate floor was itself a very risky maneuver, as the hearings are meant to be a high-profile display of the nominee’s intellect and credentials to build momentum toward confirming the new justice.

A long interruption between the hearings and the actual vote could derail any momentum, the GOP aides said.

And Senate Democrats issued a warning letter to Bush on Friday. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member on Judiciary, accused the president of caving to conservative interest groups in withdrawing the nomination of Miers and specifically warned against nominating a circuit court judge who had been filibustered in the 108th Congress.

“At this critical moment, and in light of the circumstances that led to the withdrawal of the Miers nomination, Senate Democrats will perform our constitutional ‘advice and consent’ responsibility with heightened vigilance,” Reid and Leahy wrote.

In an effort to avoid attacks from the left, Bush could delay making his next nomination for some time and set up Supreme Court nomination hearings and a vote in January. One GOP aide said Friday that one scenario under consideration was to hold hearings the week before the State of the Union address in late January — which would then give Bush a national bully pulpit to demand the confirmation of his nominee before a Senate floor vote.

But putting off the nomination announcement carries its own internal risks. At press time Friday, Bush had not made his selection and top GOP Senate aides had gone home for the weekend unaware if the president would make the pick Saturday or Sunday.

In the back of most GOP aides’ minds were the indictments against I. Lewis”Scooter” Libby on Friday, as well as the failed Miers nomination. They said late last week that making a new Supreme Court pick was one way to try to turn the corner and put a new national story at the forefront.

But an immediate announcement of the new pick puts the White House and Senate GOP back into the timeline troubles, facing the difficulty of being able to pull off the confirmation process before Christmas — or leaving the nominee dangling until January.

Democrats, for their part, are taking a neutral position on timing, simply demanding that there be ample time to fully vet the nominee and hold extensive hearings.

“He would be for the necessary amount of time it would take to do a thorough and fair job,” Tracy Schmaler, Leahy’s spokeswoman, said of the Senator’s thinking.

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