WASHINGTON – In the face of escalating attacks from conservative activists and a lukewarm reception from Senate Republicans, Harriet Miers withdrew her troubled nomination for the Supreme Court Thursday.

The surprise move came just hours after Miers delivered eight boxes of documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee and days after the president had staunchly defended his pick, an extraordinary turnabout for a White House known for sticking to its guns.

The firestorm Miers’ nomination created – and Thursday’s remarkable withdrawal – comes as the administration is girding for possible indictments today of two high-ranking White House aides in the CIA leak investigation. President Bush was already reeling from other bad news, including the 2,000th casualty of U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

Democrats accused Bush of caving to the “extreme right” and called on him to pick a “consensus nominee.” At the same time, they braced for a more conservative choice – a tack strongly urged by several Republicans inside and outside the Senate.

As the official reason for Miers’ withdrawal, the White House and Republican allies cited a brewing dispute with the Senate over access to documents she worked on as White House counsel – a request the White House resisted on the grounds of executive privilege.

In a statement, Bush said he “reluctantly” agreed to accept her decision, which she told him Wednesday evening. She will remain as White House counsel.

“It is clear that Senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House – disclosures that would undermine a President’s ability to receive candid counsel,” the statement said.

Many in the Senate said the documents fight was political cover to yank a nomination that was already doomed because of staunch opposition from conservatives, key missteps by the White House, and Miers’ failure to sell herself, even to Republicans, on Capitol Hill.

If anything was clear from Thursday’s chaotic events it was this: Miers’ decision was a major victory for conservative and religious activists – normally among the president’s strongest backers – who had orchestrated a relentless campaign against her. Many activists on the right said Bush should have nominated a candidate with a clear conservative record, but in Miers he had instead given them a “stealth” nominee with questionable legal credentials.

In this whirlwind of political gloom, many Senate Republicans greeted the news about Miers as a positive development, as her prospects for confirmation had grown dimmer each day.

Asked if there was a sense of relief among Senate Republicans, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., broke into song. “Happy days are here again,” he chirped.

“She made the right choice and she deserves credit for not dragging this out,” said Lott, who had signaled concerns about Miers early on. “This is a golden opportunity to change the dynamics on the nomination. If the president moves dramatically … you’ll find the concerns of two days ago will be vapors on the horizon.”

Sen. George Allen, R-Va., grabbed the hand of Sen. Charles Schumer for a congratulatory handshake “for different reasons,” Allen said with a wide smile at the New York Democrat. Schumer is one of the president’s most vocal opponents on judicial candidates; Allen is a possible 2008 presidential contender who had voiced concerns about Miers.

Not everyone was happy with the turn of events. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee who had been preparing to begin Miers’ hearings on Nov. 7, said she had not been afforded “basic due process.”

“Instead of a hearing before the Judiciary Committee and a debate on the Senate floor, Ms. Miers’ qualifications were subjected to a one-sided debate in news releases, press conferences, radio and TV talk shows, and the editorial pages,” Specter said in remarks on the Senate floor. “Whether she would have been confirmed remains an open question. But at least she would have had the major voice in determining her own fate.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a friend of Miers’ and her chief Senate booster, said: “This process has gotten unnecessarily contentious and downright nasty.”

Miers’ nomination was torpedoed, he said, by “pundits” who “wanted the president to pick a fight.”

Bush’s choice of Miers was seen as an effort to avoid a bitter battle with Democrats. But the president ended up bruised and bloodied by factions within his own party.

Miers’ thin paper record made conservatives fearful that she would turn out to be an unpredictable vote on key issues such as abortion. Two conservative coalitions had organized campaigns calling for her withdrawal and one had even started running advertisements against her.

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Mark Moller, a constitutional lawyer at the libertarian CATO Institute, said Miers’ nomination was “a misstep by the president and a slight to conservatives … who have sacrificed for constitutional privileges since the Reagan administration.”

Senate Republicans said the White House also made mistakes in handling Miers’ bid, such as assurances the administration made privately and publicly that Miers would be a good judge because of her strong evangelical faith.

Then there were Miers’ own missteps. The top Republican and Democrat on the Judiciary Committee said her answers to a questionnaire were inadequate and asked her to do it over. And in the one-on-one meetings Miers had with senators in the days after her nomination, she was less than impressive, several senators said.

“She just didn’t do so well meeting senators,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “If she had reinforced her credentials, she would have been in good shape.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., described Miers as “guarded” and “reserved” and said there were fears she wouldn’t come across strongly in the hearings. “There were some questions about how she would project in front of the committee,” Thune said.

Said Lott: “We were not comfortable. It was pretty broadly spread.” The biggest issue wasn’t documents, Lott added. “This is really about qualifications.”

Democrats said it wasn’t about qualifications or documents, but about conservative opposition.

“The right wing of the Republican Party found her totally unacceptable,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

He said Democrats were far from gleeful.

“The strongest argument for Harriet Miers in the Democratic caucus comes down to four words: It could be worse,” Durbin said. Now the fear among Democrats, he said, is that “this president, who is already weakened, will be afraid to stand up to the right wing.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted Bush’s difficult position, saying that if the president sends up a “very conservative nominee, it will be seen as a reward” to the special interests on the right.

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Several of Bush’s Republican allies were advising exactly that course.

Manuel Miranda, a former GOP aide to the Judiciary Committee and one of Miers’ most vocal critics, said: “The president should now make a qualified nomination that … ends the corrupting practice of stealth nominees.”

Allen said Bush “should now appoint a person with a demonstrable, clear, consistent and appropriate judicial philosophy.”

Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., said senators would want someone with a clear judicial philosophy, so Bush should pick someone “with a more extensive public record.”

Graham said Bush should not take as a lesson from Miers’ downfall that his next nominee needs to be taken from a “blessed list” put forward by special interests. “We need to make sure no one hijacks the process,” he said.

Asked who Bush might pick to avoid a bloody battle, Graham said, “I don’t know if such an American exists.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he expected a replacement within days and would push for speedy hearings. Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said she would remain on the court until her replacement is confirmed.



(St. Louis Post-Dispatch correspondents Ron Harris and Ben Roberts of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.)



(c) 2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIERS

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051027 SCOTUS possible

AP-NY-10-27-05 1843EDT


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