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Key Conservatives Demur on Miers

After meeting with Bush's Supreme Court choice, a GOP senator close to Christian conservatives declares himself unconvinced.

October 07, 2005|Maura Reynolds and Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Perhaps no group of supporters has been courted as assiduously by the Bush administration as Christian conservatives.

And no senator is closer to this group than Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who is exploring a run for president with the help of some of them.

So it was a slap in the face to the White House when Brownback, after three days of lobbying by White House aides to persuade leaders among evangelical conservatives to support Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers, emerged from an hourlong meeting with her Thursday and said he was prepared to vote against her.

"I still think there's a lot to learn about this nominee," Brownback said, citing doubts about Miers' positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. "I must do my own due diligence, and I can't say that all these issues are overcome in a one-hour meeting."

Asked if he was prepared to vote against Miers, Brownback said: "Yes."

Asked if he was prepared to vote against her even if President Bush pleaded with him directly, Brownback replied: "Yes."

In a further sign of discontent on the right with the Miers nomination, White House officials held a quickly organized conference call with several hundred conservative activists Thursday.

And the White House named a prominent evangelical Christian, former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), to serve as Miers' advisor during the confirmation process.

A White House advisor on judicial nominations, Jay Sekulow, asserted that assurances from Bush and others were helping convince conservatives that Miers would make a good justice. "The base [of the Republican Party] is coming along, slowly but surely," Sekulow said.

Monday's nomination of Miers -- formerly Bush's personal lawyer, now White House counsel -- appears in no danger in the Senate for the moment, despite a few conservative GOP senators' pointed lack of support. But it continues to feed unrest among social conservatives who worked to send Bush to the White House on the understanding he would name well-known conservatives to the high court.

"There are a number of us who would have liked to have had someone who had a clear track record," Brownback said. "This may be a great nominee, but we don't know."

A leading capital conservative, Free Congress Foundation Chairman Paul M. Weyrich, said White House efforts to sway activists were intense.

Bush's closest political advisor, Karl Rove, placed four calls over the weekend to James C. Dobson, founder of the influential evangelical group Focus on the Family, Weyrich said, persuading Dobson to back Miers.

Dobson has sought to make the White House case this week in conference calls with fellow evangelical leaders -- but he has declined to detail why he was reassured about her.

"He gave us the line 'Well, I've been told things that I can't share with you,' " Weyrich said. "That drives people up a wall."

Social conservatives publicly backing Miers include Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and David O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee.

Rick Warren, the well-known pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," also participated in Thursday's conference call on Miers' behalf, Republican officials said.

The Miers episode has divided evangelicals, Weyrich said, with Gary Bauer -- a Miers skeptic and a former presidential candidate -- openly questioning Dobson's judgment in one call. "I've never heard him and Gary Bauer argue," Weyrich said. "Normally they're big buddies."

Weyrich said that White House officials had been "on my case" to support Miers but that he had not been convinced.

He also said Miers was the sixth "trust me" nominee a Republican president had picked for the Supreme Court in the 40 years Weyrich had been a conservative activist. He cited the previous cases -- David Souter, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor -- as breaking that trust because, in his view, they turned out to be moderates or liberals on many social issues.

"Can you see why I can't take another one of these?" Weyrich said.

Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative group American Council of Law and Justice, downplayed the rift.

"I don't think this is splitting the Republican Party," Sekulow said. "I think we're a mature enough party that we can disagree among ourselves, even if we disagree out loud."

The choice of Coats to shepherd Miers through the confirmation process was seen as serving two purposes.

Like former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who guided new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. through his confirmation process, Coats is well-liked among his former Senate colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans.

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