President Bush said yesterday that it was appropriate for the White House to invoke Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers's religion in making the case for her to skeptical conservatives, triggering a debate over what role, if any, her evangelical faith should play in the confirmation battle.
Bush said religion is part of Miers's overall background much like her work as a corporate lawyer in Texas, and that "our outreach program has been just to explain the facts to people." At the same time, his attorney general went on television and described Miers as "pro-life." But the White House said her religious and personal views would not affect her ability to serve as a neutral justice.
"People ask me why I picked Harriet Miers," Bush said in response to a reporter's question at an Oval Office appearance with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. "They want to know Harriet Miers's background. They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers's life is her religion."
The issue was stoked by James C. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, who recounted on a radio show taped Tuesday and aired yesterday that Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove raised religion in a private conversation to assure him of Miers's conservative bona fides. According to Dobson, Rove told him two days before Bush announced the nomination "that Harriet Miers is an evangelical Christian [and] that she is from a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life."
Citing Rove, Dobson also revealed that the president chose Miers after other candidates withdrew. White House press secretary Scott McClellan confirmed yesterday that "a couple" of potential nominees asked not to be considered because of "the ordeal of going through the confirmation process." McClellan declined to identify those who withdrew. Dobson said Rove told him the president had decided to nominate a woman, which narrowed the list even before the withdrawals.
Liberals jumped on Dobson's comments to accuse the White House of imposing a religious litmus test, or of invoking faith to signal to conservatives that Miers would rule as they wish on such questions as restricting abortion rights. Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, noted that conservatives complained when anyone questioned the influence of faith during the recent confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
"It's hypocrisy doubled and quadrupled," Neas said. "What's wrong for John Roberts can't be right for Harriet Miers. . . . The president and his people are using repeated assurances about Miers's religion to send not-so-subtle messages about how she might rule on the court on issues important to the president's political supporters."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, signaled his party may have more questions about the Rove-Dobson communications. "The rest of America, including the Senate, deserves to know what he and the White House know," Leahy said of Dobson in a statement. "We don't confirm justices of the Supreme Court on a wink and a nod. And a litmus test is no less a litmus test by using whispers and signals."
During Roberts's confirmation, the administration and its allies tiptoed around the question of the nominee's religious beliefs. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told reporters that when he asked how faith influences his work, Roberts "said, 'I'm very uncomfortable talking about that.' " Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said during Roberts's confirmation, "We have no religious test for public office in this country."
But religion was clearly on the minds of some Miers supporters yesterday. Television evangelist Pat Robertson warned Republican senators not to vote against Miers, noting that most of them had voted for Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- whom Robertson described as a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer -- when she was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993. "Now they're going to turn against a Christian who is a conservative picked by a conservative president and they're going to vote against her for confirmation?" he asked on his show. "Not on your sweet life if they want to stay in office."
The Senate Judiciary Committee sent Miers a questionnaire yesterday that included several items the panel did not ask of Roberts. "Please describe in detail any cases or matters you addressed as an attorney or public official which involved constitutional questions," the questionnaire asks. The committee, consisting of 10 Republicans and eight Democrats, also asked Miers to "explain how you will resolve any conflicts that may arise by virtue of your service in the Bush Administration, as George W. Bush's personal lawyer, or as the lawyer for George W. Bush's Gubernatorial and Presidential campaigns."
The administration again dispatched top officials to defend the Miers nomination. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said on MSNBC yesterday that he believes Miers personally opposes abortion. "I believe that she is pro-life," Gonzales said. "But the question as to whether or not she's pro-life or not has no bearing and should have no bearing as to . . . how she would rule on a particular case interpreting the right to an abortion."
A Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the nomination said Gonzales has never talked with Miers about her views on abortion. The official declined to say why Gonzales believes Miers is opposed to the practice.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman stressed that Miers would not be seduced by the liberal establishment like other Republican-appointed justices who "want to curry favor with the Georgetown cocktail set."
Staff writer Dan Eggen and Chris Cillizza of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.