WASHINGTON – The conservative rebellion against Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers widens the split between the White House and Republicans, sowing fears among party strategists that President Bush is jeopardizing 10 years of GOP congressional dominance.

Republicans are speaking out and voting against the administration with defiance unseen since he’s been in the White House. In recent days, the Senate reined in the administration on the treatment of foreign detainees, forced it to jettison no-bid reconstruction contracts in the Gulf region and gave Miers a tepid welcome as Bush’s choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

This emboldened stance comes amid mounting worries over Iraq policy, lingering questions about the federal response to Katrina and Bush’s sinking public approval ratings.

For Bush and Senate Republicans, it marks a parting of ways with consequences for the remainder of his term. It also signals a loss in Bush’s clout after five years of expanding presidential power. As Republicans distance themselves from the president, lawmakers and strategists wonder whether conservative anger at the Miers nomination could do their party irreparable harm.

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to recapture control of the Senate – a task made easier if Bush alienates religious conservative voters who helped give him his margin of victory in 2004.

“That can hurt Republicans in very, very close races,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Washington-based Republican pollster and political strategist. “If there is no enthusiasm, or if the backbone of the street organization feels disenfranchised or disillusioned, there is no reason for them to go out and do anything.”

Such disillusionment could be especially problematic for Republican senators Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Jim Talent in Missouri and Mike DeWine in Ohio, seeking re-election in close races. Republican senators with 2008 presidential aspirations, such as Sam Brownback of Kansas and George Allen of Virginia, old allies of religious conservatives, will also need help from religious conservatives.

Miers’ most vehement conservative critics – and the party’s stoutest supporters – oppose abortion and gay marriage and don’t want courts limiting religion’s role. They say Miers has no track record to reassure them. Influential conservative commentators such as George Will, William Kristol and Robert Bork also denounced her selection.

Brownback, a lawyer and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last week that he was prepared to vote against Miers if her answers during confirmation hearings next month fall short. Allen, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and John Thune of South Dakota also voiced doubts.

“If you look at the politics of 2006, having a fight would really energize and motivate our supporters,” Thune said. “Our folks were ready to lace them up, they were ready for a fight. A left-right fight is something that helps us. A right and less-right fight is something that doesn’t help us.”

Conservatives were especially disappointed in Miers after having supported John G. Roberts Jr. for the chief justice. Roberts, by all accounts a conservative and brilliant legal mind, also lacked a clear record on abortion, gay issues and religion.

“Every conservative Christian leader said, “The next one is the one that really needs to be THE conservative,”‘ Fabrizio said. “And now he nominates Harriet Miers. Either the White House did not understand that they only served to raise the stakes with Roberts or they think that they have the muscle to bully the right into accepting Harriet Miers.”

Conservatives bristled even more when Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic Leader, volunteered that he’d urged Bush to name Miers. Reid appeared with Miers at his side last Monday, applauding her nomination.

“People who want to see the court shift … thought there would be a battle (taking) place to make that happen,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Christian conservative Family Research Council. “I don’t think they envisioned Republican and Democratic senators holding hands, standing in a circle singing Kumbaya about this nominee.”

Having pushed back against Bush on the treatment of detainees and on post-hurricane reconstruction, Republicans may not be inclined to push back on Miers. While some outside groups and commentators have urged her to withdraw, no Senate Republican has. But that could change as Republicans begin to put their political well-being ahead of a president in his final term.

“The Senate elected officials have to be more sensitive to constituency issues than does the president,” said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “We’re beginning to see the beginning of the lame duck factor.”

(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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