Miers may avert a Senate storm

Democratic leader Harry Reid expresses confidence in her.

With his nomination of Harriet Miers, President Bush reduces the likelihood of a Senate fight over the critical swing seat on the Supreme Court - at least from the left.

While many senators scrambled for early flights back to Washington, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle promised dignified, professional hearings, with an up-or-down confirmation vote as early as Thanksgiving.

In early responses to the nomination, some conservative Republicans, not speaking on the record, were disappointed. But Democrats appeared relieved that Mr. Bush did not appoint a nominee in the mold of conservative justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

"I like Harriet Miers," said Senate Democrat leader Harry Reid, who voted against John Roberts, but urged the president to consider her as a nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.

"In my view, the Supreme Court would benefit from the addition of a justice who has real experience as a practicing lawyer," he added, in a statement.

Even more so than John Roberts, recently confirmed as chief justice, Ms. Miers has a short paper trail. While senators have cordial contacts with her as White House counsel, they do not have a fix on her views on hot-button issues ranging from abortion and privacy rights to how widely Congress can regulate the economy based on the commerce clause of the Constitution.

Unusually, both Democrats and Republicans say they will press for release of documents during Miers's White House years that will give a clearer view on where she stands on these issues. Since Miers has no record as a judge, senators say the release of relevant documents will be even more important for Miers than it was for Judge Roberts.

"Although the [Bush] administration did not provide the [Judiciary] Committee with files relating to John Roberts's service as Deputy Solicitor General for the United States, we were able to receive from the Reagan Library extensive memoranda and files relating to John Roberts's White House service in the Reagan Administration. The American people are entitled - at a minimum - to the same kind of memoranda and files relating to Ms. Miers," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, the longest serving member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Citing public opinion polls, Democrats say that Americans overwhelmingly support a full examination of a nominee's record, including relevant documents from White House service. Some Senate Republicans say they, too, will be eager to see documents that could give more insight into the nominee's views.

"By picking a nominee whose views are unknown, it will be harder for Democrats to oppose the nomination. But there were a number of conservatives who hoped he would pick Bork II, and are also unhappy," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Boston University, referring to the failed nomination of conservative icon Robert Bork in 1987.

Senate Judiciary committee chairman Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania welcomed the appointment of a woman to replace Justice O'Connor, but did not commit to completion of the process by Thanksgiving.

"It is an enormously important appointment.... We will be very, very thorough. To the extent we can meet the time table we will, but thoroughness will be our principal goal," he said.

In comments to reporters on Monday, Senator Specter said he did not expect that many White House documents will be useful or forthcoming. "There's very little to start with, and on first blush it would be covered by attorney-client privilege," he said.

Democrats are particularly interested in any input Miers may have had on controversial White House policies ranging from torture and treatment of detainees at Guantánamo to claims of executive privilege.

Appointed to be Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary on Jan. 20, 2001, Miers was promoted to be Deputy Chief of Staff in 2003, and has been counsel to the president since February 2005.

"She was 'staff secretary' when the torture memo was drafted, but we don't know what that means. Given her legal expertise, she might well have participated in an important policymaking role," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

A wild card in the confirmation fight is how far conservatives may take their disappointment that this nominee - set to reshape the high court - is not more clearly on their side. Several figures held off releasing statements to learn more about her record, aides said.

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