The conservative uprising against President Bush escalated yesterday as Republican activists angry over his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court confronted the president's envoys during a pair of tense closed-door meetings.
A day after Bush publicly beseeched skeptical supporters to trust his judgment on Miers, a succession of prominent conservative leaders told his representatives that they did not. Over the course of several hours of sometimes testy exchanges, the dissenters complained that Miers was an unknown quantity with a thin resume and that her selection -- Bush called her "the best person I could find" -- was a betrayal of years of struggle to move the court to the right.
At one point in the first of the two off-the-record sessions, according to several people in the room, White House adviser Ed Gillespie suggested that some of the unease about Miers "has a whiff of sexism and a whiff of elitism." Irate participants erupted and demanded that he take it back. Gillespie later said he did not mean to accuse anyone in the room but "was talking more broadly" about criticism of Miers.
The tenor of the two meetings suggested that Bush has yet to rally his own party behind Miers and underscores that he risks the biggest rupture with the Republican base of his presidency. While conservatives at times have assailed some Bush policy decisions, rarely have they been so openly distrustful of the president himself.
Leaders of such groups as Paul M. Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation and the Eagle Forum yesterday declared they could not support Miers at this point, while columnist George Will decried the choice as a diversity pick without any evidence that Miers has the expertise and intellectual firepower necessary for the high court.
As the nominee continued to work the halls of the Senate, the White House took comfort from the more measured response of the Senate Republican caucus and remained confident that most if not all of its members ultimately will support her. Yet even some GOP senators continued to voice skepticism of Miers, including Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who pronounced himself "not comfortable."
"Is she the most qualified person? Clearly, the answer to that is 'no,' " Lott said on MSNBC's "Hardball," contradicting Bush's assertion. "There are a lot more people -- men, women and minorities -- that are more qualified, in my opinion, by their experience than she is. Now, that doesn't mean she's not qualified, but you have to weigh that. And then you have to also look at what has been her level of decisiveness and competence, and I don't have enough information on that yet."
The persistent criticism has put the White House on the defensive ever since Bush announced Monday his decision to nominate Miers to succeed the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor. While Miers has a long career as a commercial lawyer, Texas political figure and personal attorney to Bush before joining him at the White House, she has never been a judge or dealt extensively with the sorts of constitutional issues that occupy the Supreme Court.
Bush tried to defuse the smoldering conservative revolt with a Rose Garden news conference Tuesday, and the White House followed up yesterday by dispatching Gillespie, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and presidential aide Tim Goeglein to meetings that regularly bring together the city's most influential fiscal, religious and business conservatives.
"The message of the meetings was the president consulted with 80 United States senators but didn't consult with the people who elected him," said Manuel A. Miranda, a former nominations counsel for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who attended both private meetings.
Weyrich, who hosted one of the meetings, said afterward that he had rarely seen the level of passion at one of his weekly sessions. "This kind of emotional thing will not happen" often, Weyrich said. But he feared the White House advisers did not really grasp the seriousness of the conservative grievance. "I don't know if they got the message. I didn't sense that they really understand where people were coming from."
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and host of the other meeting, declined to comment on the discussion because of its presumption of confidentiality but said there is widespread concern given the experience with the nomination of Justice David H. Souter, who proved more liberal once on the bench. "There's a great deal of frustration because of the Souter experience," Norquist said. "The problem is there's no fixing, there's no allaying those fears. For the president to say 'Trust me,' it's what he needs to say and has to say, but it doesn't calm the waters."
In interviews afterward, Gillespie and Mehlman acknowledged they faced skeptical questions but assured their usual allies that Miers would earn their respect. "People have questions," said Gillespie, who bore the brunt of the criticism at the Norquist meeting. "If you don't know Harriet and don't know her background, it's understandable that people have questions."
While much of the consternation was voiced by social conservatives, the White House has trumpeted the support of such prominent figures as James C. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and the National Right to Life Committee. And in the end, White House advisers emphasized, only the Senate gets a vote. "This is about getting senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to support her," said one administration ally working on the confirmation effort. "There's no real concern about Republican senators now."
The main complaints cited at the Norquist and Weyrich sessions yesterday, according to several accounts, centered on Miers's lack of track record and the charge of cronyism. "It was very tough and people were very unhappy," said one person who attended. Another said much of the anger resulted from the fact that "everyone prepared to go to the mat" to support a strong, controversial nominee and Miers was a letdown. As a result, a third attendee observed, Gillespie and Mehlman came in for rough treatment: "They got pummeled. I've never seen anything like it."
The 90-minute Norquist session, where Gillespie appeared before 100 activists, was the more fiery encounter, according to participants. Among those speaking out was Jessica Echard, executive director of the Eagle Forum, founded by Phyllis Schlafly. Although she declined to give a full account later because of the meeting ground rules, Echard said in an interview that her group could not for now support Miers: "We feel this is a disappointment in President Bush. If it's going to be a woman, we expected an equal heavyweight to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her liberal stance, and we did not get that in Miss Miers."
Another conservative captured the mood, according to a witness, by scorning Miers. "She's the president's nominee," he said. "She's not ours."
At Weyrich's two-hour luncheon featuring Mehlman and Goeglein addressing 85 activists, the host opened the discussion by rejecting Bush's call to trust him. "I told Mehlman that I had had five 'trust-mes' in my long history here . . . and I said, 'I'm sorry, but the president saying he knows her heart is insufficient," Weyrich said, referring to Republican court appointments that resulted in disappointment for conservatives.
In a later interview, Mehlman said he retorted that Bush's decade-long friendship with Miers set this nomination apart: "What's different about this trust-me moment as opposed to the other ones is this president's knowledge of this nominee."
Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.