The mountain wouldn’t go to President Bush when he nominated Harriet Miers to serve on the Supreme Court, so now he is going to the mountain.
Having taken a beating from usual allies on the right for choosing his White House counsel to serve on the nation’s highest court, a choice he subsequently withdrew, Bush tried to get back in the good graces of his base on Monday by offering Judge Samuel Alito in her stead.
The president alienated many core supporters with his choice of Miers, who was perceived as an unproven commodity. Bush is hoping to make amends by picking a veteran appeals-court judge whose legal philosophy often is compared to that of Justice Antonin Scalia, the high court’s most conservative member.
With polls showing Bush’s approval ratings dipping below 40 percent and support even within his conservative base beginning to erode, he didn’t bother with the usual courtesies before naming his pick to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor _ a selection that will almost surely, if Alito is confirmed by the Senate, shift the court to the right.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who advised Bush in a private conversation that Miers might prove acceptable to those on his side of the aisle, said the Alito nomination is “not the product of consultation with Senate Democrats.”
Reid said that he, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the president on Friday asking him “to work with us to find a consensus nominee.”
“The president has rejected that approach,” he said.
Instead, conservative activists who derailed the Miers nomination got the sort of candidate they desire. Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women of America, said Monday that Alito “has always been one of our top choices for the Supreme Court.”
Last week, LaRue was among those calling on Bush to withdraw the Miers nomination, saying, “We believe that far better qualified candidates were overlooked and that Miss Miers’ record fails to answer our questions about her qualifications and constitutional philosophy.”
Tony Perkins, head of the Washington-based Family Research Council, was among those social conservatives apprehensive about the Miers nomination. He said that “our lack of knowledge about Harriet Miers, and the absence of a record on the bench, give us insufficient information from which to assess” if she was deserving of a seat on the high court. But he showed no such reluctance in supporting Alito.
“President Bush could not have chosen a more qualified nominee,” Perkins said. “We will fight for fair and swift confirmation hearings and a vote in the full Senate before the end of the year.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the right’s quick embrace of Alito establishes that “the radical conservative right is in charge of his (Bush’s) administration.”
“Instead of seeking to unify the country with a nominee who would command wide consensus, the president again chose to submit to the dictates of the radical right,” Pelosi said. “The president’s nomination of Judge Alito reflects weakness _ the president is unable or unwilling to withstand pressure by an extreme element in our country, rather than acting as a leader of all the people.”
The Alito nomination also provides the president’s supporters on the right with something else they’ve been spoiling for _ a fight.
Conservative groups have been looking for a confrontation with liberal forces over the judiciary, something they have been deprived of during much of the Bush administration. A showdown was averted in May when a bipartisan collection of senators _ known as the Gang of 14 _ reached a compromise that prevented a Democratic filibuster over several lower-court appointees.
But Democrats are vowing to fight back. Early opposition has come from those who support a woman’s right to an abortion. Such proponents say that Alito’s record indicates he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide, if given the opportunity.
“This is a needlessly provocative nomination,” Leahy said. “Instead of uniting the country through his choice, the president has chosen to reward one faction of his party, at the risk of dividing the country. Instead he should have rewarded the American people. America could have done better through consultation to select one of the many consensus conservative Republican candidates who could have been overwhelmingly approved by the Senate.”
Democrats haven’t announced an intention to filibuster the Alito nomination _ a move that would require him to get 60 votes in the 100-member Senate for confirmation. If that happens, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee will almost certainly proceed with what has been labeled the “nuclear option” _ a rules change that would prohibit the filibuster of court nominees.
Republicans control the upper chamber, holding 55 seats. One independent, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, usually sides with Democrats. The nuclear option could pass. But that, in turn, could lead to steps by Democrats to halt all other action in the Senate.
“We’re ready to rumble,” Perkins said.
(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)