WASHINGTON—The conservative rebellion against Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is widening the split between the White House and Republicans, sowing fears among party strategists that President Bush is jeopardizing 10 years of GOP congressional dominance.
With defiance unseen since he's been in the White House, Senate Republicans already have reined in the administration on the treatment of foreign detainees, forced it to jettison no-bid post-hurricane reconstruction contracts and given Miers a tepid welcome as Bush's choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Behind these emboldened stances lie growing unease over Bush's Iraq policy, dismay at the federal response to Katrina and Bush's sinking public approval ratings.
The parting of ways signals a loss in Bush's clout after five years that is likely to have consequences for the remainder of his term and possibly beyond. 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 him greatly in 2004 and now are offended by his selection of Miers.
"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 hurt 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 their help.
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 in government. They say Miers has no track record to reassure them, and influential conservative commentators such as George Will, William Kristol and Robert Bork have also denounced her selection.
Fueling further doubts on Sunday, Miers' longtime friend and religious mentor, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, said on "Fox News Sunday" that while Miers holds strong anti-abortion views, she would put the law above her personal views when judging cases on the court.
"She sounds a lot to me like another swing vote, which was the last thing we were expecting a conservative president to give us," Gary Bauer, head of the American Values Group, replied on the same news show.
Brownback, a lawyer and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he'll vote against Miers if her answers during confirmation hearings next month fall short. Allen, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and John Thune of South Dakota are threatening to follow suit.
"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 a something that helps us. A right and less-right fight is something that doesn't help us."
Appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican moderate who chairs the Judiciary Committee, described the conservative response to Miers as "one of the toughest lynch mobs ever assembled in Washington, D.C."
Some allies of the president, such as James Dobson, head of the religious conservative Focus on the Family, are supporting Miers after consulting with White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and are trying to reassure conservatives that she will not disappoint them once on the bench.
Specter said the committee would look into those discussions. "If there are back room assurances and if there are back room deals and if there is something which bears upon a precondition as to how a nominee is going to vote, I think that's a matter that ought to be known by the Judiciary Committee and the American people," he said.
Conservatives were especially disappointed in Miers after having supported John G. Roberts 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 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."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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