WASHINGTON—Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers assured a Senate Democrat Monday that she's never told anyone how she would rule on abortion rights.
"Nobody knows how I would rule on Roe v. Wade," Miers said, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Still, Schumer and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the panel chairman, said Monday that they want to know more about a private teleconference call in which two of Miers' friends reportedly assured religious conservatives that she would vote to overturn the 1973 case that legalized abortion.
Schumer said it was possible that the Judiciary Committee would subpoena participants in the call. The key issue: whether the White House engineered a clandestine campaign to assure social conservatives that Miers would oppose abortion, while publicly insisting that it had no abortion litmus test in picking Miers.
Specter said committee staffers are investigating.
"If there was a telephone call where someone gave assurances about how she's going to vote in a case, you bet that's something we'd look into," Specter said. "Absolutely. It is not tolerable to have any commitments about how a nominee would vote on a case. Not tolerable."
Said Schumer: "You can't have a campaign for a nominee based on whispers and winks."
Any hints on Miers' views on abortion rights have been closely watched.
Early Monday evening, Specter, a moderate Republican who supports abortion rights, said that during a nearly two-hour private meeting, Miers told him that she believed the court had properly decided a precedent-setting 1965 privacy case. That case, Griswold v. Connecticut, established the legal foundation that led to Roe v. Wade.
But after Specter's comments made news, Miers called him to say she had not taken a position on that landmark case. Specter's office issued a statement saying he "accepts Ms. Miers' statement that he misunderstood what she said."
Monday's skirmishing over the teleconference call was set off by Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund. He described a call among 13 members of "the Arlington Group," which he described as "an umbrella alliance of 60 religious conservative groups," on Oct. 3, the day President Bush nominated Miers.
During the call, James Dobson, founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, introduced two friends of Miers to speak about her, according to Fund.
White House political guru "Karl Rove suggested that we talk with these gentlemen because they can confirm specific reasons why Harriet Miers might be a better candidate than some of us think," Dobson said, according to notes cited by Fund as taken during the call by one participant.
One participant asked whether the men thought Miers would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
"Absolutely," said U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade of Texas.
"I agree with that," said Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, a longtime Miers companion, according to Fund.
The call came one day after Rove spoke at length with Dobson about Miers, assuring the influential conservative that Miers was acceptable. Dobson has said that Rove made no promise about how Miers would vote if confirmed for the court.
The White House said Monday that it didn't set up the second call.
"That was not a call organized by the White House, and as far as I've been able to learn, no one at the White House was involved on that call," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Miers told Schumer that she'd never discussed Roe v. Wade with Kinkeade or Hecht, Schumer said, but she refused to say whether she had ever discussed the issue with Rove.
Kinkeade declined to comment. In a statement read by his assistant, the judge said he "does not feel it is appropriate to have further discussion about Ms. Miers' nomination in public."
Hecht didn't respond to calls for comment.
Other participants also refused to comment, calling the teleconference a private call.
One social conservative familiar with the call said the two Texas judges were speculating about Miers' likely vote on abortion, not promising it.
"They felt she was pro-life. But they said they did not know for sure," said the conservative, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid rupturing relations with activists on the call.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a Miers ally and a Judiciary Committee member, opposed having the panel spend time examining the conference call. "I think there is going to be plenty of fodder for the committee to deal with without running down rabbit trails," Cornyn said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also a Judiciary Committee member, voiced annoyance at some conservative activists' opposition to Miers' nomination.
"What bothers me is that loudmouths two weeks ago were saying that they had this conversation and that conversation. I see most of them wanting to be big shots and ... want to be more than they really are," Grassley said, adding that "religion shouldn't play a role" in choosing a Supreme Court justice.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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