The Bush administration, concerned that vocal critics are wounding Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers while she quietly prepares for her Senate hearing 12 days from now, is considering ways to fight back -- possibly by having her make a speech -- sources familiar with the discussions said yesterday.
Some presidential advisers and senators think it would be unwise for Miers to speak out before the hearing, and it was unclear yesterday how strongly key decision-makers were considering the idea of her making a speech, according to three people who have discussed the matter with White House officials. But the fact that presidential aides are considering the unorthodox tactic of having a court nominee speak publicly in advance of a Senate confirmation hearing is a sign of the concern surrounding the appointment, the sources said.
Miers's supporters are frustrated by the steady attacks by conservative groups and commentators and would like the White House to defend her more aggressively. "I think certainly, either before or during the hearing, people need to know a little bit more about who she is and what motivates her," John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Miers's most outspoken Senate backer, told reporters. "She has been caricatured because other people have spoken about her, but she really hasn't spoken for herself."
A Senate source familiar with White House discussions said that "the idea she should make a speech is a big deal" among strategists. The source, who would speak only on background because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said a number of lawmakers advised against the idea but it had not been ruled out.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice and a conservative adviser to the White House on judicial nominations, said that "there have been a number of discussions about what proactive strategy" might be appropriate, and that "there have been discussions about a variety of options."
He added, however: "I don't anticipate any great speeches or anything like that" before the Judiciary Committee starts its week-long hearings Nov. 7. "I think it would be risky to start making public policy speeches prior to the hearing," he said. "It would be unusual. You would almost circumvent the Senate there. She is a nominee; she is not a candidate for public office."
Others agree with Sekulow but are eager to find alternative ways to defend Miers. Some had hoped that more Republican would speak favorably about her after their one-on-one meetings with the nominee, which began shortly after Bush announced his choice on Oct. 3. But some of her most promising meetings took place before the criticisms were fully launched, and other meetings did not impress senators, according to people who have tracked the process.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Miers's supporters should argue more forcefully that conservatives' attacks on her "are not about the nominee but are about the president," at a time when he needs his friends' support. Miers should not make a pre-hearing speech, Graham said, and should devote her time to preparing for the hearing.
Unlike Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s confirmation process earlier this year, Miers's biggest obstacle may be conservative Republicans, not liberal Democrats. The depth of her challenge was reflected in interviews yesterday as GOP senators emerged from their weekly luncheon at the Capitol. Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a Judiciary Committee member who strongly endorsed Roberts, was asked if Miers should withdraw. "I'm not going to comment on that," he said.
Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) said Miers's handlers should change the current dynamic "if they could."
"But I don't know what it is they can do at this point," he added, saying that "there's a good bit of concern" about her nomination among GOP members, who voted 55 to 0 for Roberts. Asked if there might be some Republican votes against Miers's confirmation, Lott said: "As it now stands, clearly there could be. Because I could be."
Lott also told reporters: "I don't know this lady." After his only conversation with her, a few months ago, he said, "when I hung up the phone, I asked my young counsel, 'Who is that person?' Because I was not happy with the conversation," which dealt with federal court nominees.
Meanwhile yesterday, an anti-Miers group called Americans for Better Justice unveiled a TV ad featuring criticisms of her by radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork.
Lott cautioned that outside groups have a limited ability to influence senators of either party. "I'll call them when I need to hear from them," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, they can all shove off, left and right."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.