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Bush Refuses to Release Miers' Files

He says letting senators see the high court pick's White House records is a 'red line I'm not willing to cross.' Lawmakers suggest a compromise.

October 25, 2005|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush said Monday that he would resist calls from Congress to release documents from Harriet E. Miers' White House service, setting up a possible standoff with senators over how much information they were entitled to about his choice for the Supreme Court.

Senators of both parties say that Miers -- who has held three White House jobs in the last five years, including counsel to the president -- is largely unknown outside the Bush administration. As a result, Republicans and Democrats have said they may not vote for her unless the White House provides at least some materials that demonstrate her qualifications to sit on the nation's highest court.

At the close of his weekly Cabinet meeting, Bush flatly rejected the request.

"It's a red line I'm not willing to cross," the president said, arguing that releasing such materials would cause aides to hold back unvarnished advice in the future.

"We are not going to destroy this business about people being able to walk into the Oval Office and say, 'Mr. President, here's my advice to you, here's what I think is important,' " Bush said. "And that's not only important for this president; it's important for future presidents."

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is overseeing the congressional confirmation process, suggested that the president and senators might be able to reach a compromise by releasing documents that don't contain confidential advice.

"A number of senators, including Republican senators, have asked that a search be made as to nonprivileged documents," Specter told reporters Monday.

He suggested that the release of some White House documents could ease the pressure on Miers at confirmation hearings set to begin Nov. 7.

Miers' nomination has encountered stiff opposition from conservatives who think her career does not demonstrate either outstanding jurisprudence or a commitment to conservative values.

Some conservative groups are organizing a formal campaign against Miers. Some put up a website Monday, www.withdrawmiers.org, urging readers to phone the White House to demand her withdrawal.

"We are calling on Ms. Miers to withdraw her nomination, and if she does, we call on President Bush to use this opportunity to select an individual with impeccable credentials," said Joseph Cella, president of Fidelis, a Catholic antiabortion political advocacy group that is a sponsor of the website.

Democrats also have demanded access to White House documents and expressed dismay at the president's dismissal of the idea.

"The president says people need to learn more about Harriet Miers, and senators on both sides of the aisle agree," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. "That is why we have asked for documents from her time in the White House that aren't covered by any privilege, and it is disappointing to me, and I am sure to all of us, that it looks like the White House is now refusing to agree to those requests."

The White House gave no indication that the president was considering withdrawing her nomination. Nor did Miers, who paid a courtesy call Monday to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of a number of Senate Republicans who have expressed concerns about her nomination but have not said how they would vote.

In his comment, Bush cited only confidentiality, not the formal doctrine of executive privilege, in backing his position that White House materials are off-limits.

One reason might be that the White House is hoping to avoid a confrontation over executive privilege, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court when sought by outside groups but may not be absolute when applied to Congress.

"Executive privilege is not an absolute," wrote Louis Fisher, a nonpartisan senior specialist at the Congressional Research Service, in a report prepared for a member of the Judiciary Committee. "It is a qualified privilege and is balanced against the constitutional needs and obligations of other branches."

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