Bush Defends Supreme Court Pick

In a Rose Garden news conference, President Bush praised Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and reasserted his conservative credentials.
In a Rose Garden news conference, President Bush praised Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and reasserted his conservative credentials. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Seeking to quell a revolt within his own party, President Bush offered a robust defense of his new Supreme Court nominee as well as his own conservative credentials yesterday in the face of Republican complaints that he has drifted from his ideological moorings in recent weeks.

A day after tapping White House counsel Harriet Miers for associate justice, Bush appeared in the Rose Garden to reject charges of cronyism, criticism of her scant constitutional background and suspicion of her judicial philosophy. He presented her as the most qualified candidate in the country and called on the Senate to confirm her by Thanksgiving. Their friendship, he added, should be seen as a plus, not a minus.

"I picked the best person I could find," Bush said at his first full-fledged White House news conference since May. "People know we're close. But you got to understand, because of our closeness, I know the character of the person. It's one thing to say a person can read the law -- and that's important -- and understand the law. But what also matters . . . is the intangibles. To me, a person's strength of character counts a lot."

The expansive, 55-minute question-and-answer session on a warm autumn day came at a time when Bush has been struggling to regain traction after bottoming out in opinion-poll approval ratings. The wide range of issues that he addressed added up to a compendium of his troubles lately, as he again took responsibility for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, deflected questions on the CIA leak investigation, insisted the United States is making progress in Iraq and acknowledged that his Social Security plan is going nowhere in Congress for now.

At the root of many of the issues was the essential question of where his presidency is headed, nearly a year after his reelection. Instead of picking a full-throated antiabortion conservative to replace the retiring centrist Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as supporters wanted, Bush named a confidante whose views are largely unknown to everyone except him. With his conservative domestic agenda essentially tabled, he has embraced a massive spending program to restore New Orleans and the Gulf Coast that dwarfs the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.

Bush dismissed suggestions that he has lost his way or his influence. "Am I still a conservative?" he said at one point, repeating a reporter's question. "Proudly so. Proudly so." Asked if he still has political capital, as he boasted after last year's election, he answered: "Plenty. Plenty."

Yet he stopped short of issuing the sort of clear call for the end of legalized abortion that his political base hopes will result from his Supreme Court nominations. He described himself as "a pro-life president" but refused to say whether he wants the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade . "I'm not going to interject that kind of issue in the midst of these hearings," he said, referring to Miers's confirmation process.

As Bush defended his choice, Miers was on Capitol Hill meeting with senators. The White House and the Republican National Committee reached out to conservatives all day through a series of conference calls and e-mail messages to reassure skeptics that she is one of them.

One such skeptic is Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a Judiciary Committee member and prospective 2008 presidential candidate. In a carefully worded statement, he said he wants to know much more about Miers's views on various issues. "I am not yet confident that Ms. Miers has a proven track record and I look forward to having these questions answered," he said.

Speaking separately to an Associated Press reporter, Brownback added: "There's precious little to go on and a deep concern that this would be a Souter-type candidate," he said, referring to Justice David H. Souter, who was little known when nominated in 1990 and turned out to be more liberal than Republican supporters expected.

"The circumstances seem to be very similar," Brownback said. "Not much track record, people vouching for her, yet indications of a different thought pattern earlier in life."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he also has concerns about the lack of a paper trail -- leaving senators unsure about her views on a range of issues, including business law and social concerns. "I will need to know more about her," he said. But he said he was "very satisfied" with Miers's answers during their meeting and added: "I would assume she is very conservative."

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