At the Capitol, Democrats Wait To Fill in the Blank

Sens. Charles Schumer, right, and Patrick Leahy watch as President Bush announces John G. Roberts Jr. as his Supreme Court nominee.
Sens. Charles Schumer, right, and Patrick Leahy watch as President Bush announces John G. Roberts Jr. as his Supreme Court nominee. (By Yuri Gripas -- Associated Press)
By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, perches on the edge of a desk, his back slumped, feet dangling, the way little kids do. The wall in front of him holds a media junkie's heaven, a Democrat's nightmare: seven television screens, each showing the face of President Bush about to introduce his chosen nominee for the Supreme Court.

Leahy has come to watch the announcement in the Senate Democrats' war room, a small office on the third floor of the Capitol where party messages are conceived and distributed. Tonight the room bears the hallmarks of a very long day: castoff cereal boxes and pretzel bags, staff with heavy eyes. A half-full coffee mug reads "FIRE KARL," a stack of signs on the window exhort "Stop the Abuse of Power."

"There we go," says Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as Bush walks up to the lectern with his grinning nominee, John G. Roberts Jr.

By all accounts the president put senators in the loop, soliciting names of their favorite candidates, instructing his staff to reach out to anyone who felt slighted.

And yet even they found out about Bush's choice at the same time the rest of America heard it on the news shows, and if they had any reactions tonight they, too, could share them with the television.

"He was born in Buffalo," Bush says. Vermont's Leahy nods in sympathy.

"He has a good heart," Bush says. Schumer crosses his arms, leans in to whisper something to Leahy.

It had been a day of manic energy in search of a target. For the war room veterans, it began at 6 a.m. -- 6:03 to be exact, which is when Jim Manley, who directs the war room, got his first call, from a reporter preparing for a morning news show.

"It's Clement," the reporter said, meaning Edith Brown Clement, rumored for most of the day to be Bush's choice.

Democrats were prepared to say that the nominee was "alarming" or "scary" or at the very least "needed careful examination," but first they needed a name. All day the staff in the war room fielded conference calls, scheduled media, hashed out talking points, expended massive amounts of energy fighting a phantom.

Rebecca Kirszner, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's communications director, sat in the war room next to a postcard-size television. She tapped a pen on the desk, jiggled her leg, talked too fast.

"What else should I know?" she asked the endless stream of callers.

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