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In a striking defeat for President Bush, White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination to the Supreme Court on Thursday after three weeks of brutal criticism from fellow conservatives.
The Senate's top Republican predicted a replacement candidate within days.
Miers said she abandoned her quest for confirmation rather than give in to Senate demands for documents and information detailing her private advice to the president.
Senior lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee said they had made no such request. Instead, Republicans and Democrats said politics forced her to withdraw, particularly the demands of Republican conservatives who twice elected Bush and now seek to move the high court to the right on abortion and other issues.
"They had a litmus test and Harriet Miers failed that test," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.,
"In effect, she was denied due process by members of her own party," said Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican. And former GOP Sen. Dan Coats, whom the White House assigned to assist her win confirmation, said outside groups and pundits and "perhaps even some senators" had rushed to judgment.
Bush, beset by poor poll ratings, an unpopular war in Iraq, high energy prices and the possibility of indictments of White House officials, offered no hint about his thinking on a new nominee. He pledged to make an appointment in a "timely manner."
While White House aides had assembled a lengthy list of contenders prior to Bush's selection of Miers less than a month ago, most if not all of them were prominent conservative jurists who could be expected to trigger a sharp clash with Democrats. Other, less contentious contenders could come from outside what Bush calls the "judicial monastery," possibly a current or former senator who could easily win confirmation on a bipartisan vote.
Sen. John Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court judge, sidestepped when asked about his own availability, demurring without closing the door on an appointment. "If the president calls me, obviously I'll answer the phone or go see him if he invites me to come to the White House, but that hasn't happened and I doubt it will happen," he said.
Whatever the next choice, many Republicans seemed eager to place Miers' nomination and the intra-party brawl it sparked behind them as quickly as possible. "Let's move on," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. "In a month, who will remember the name Harriet Miers?"
Ironically for conservatives the withdrawal means an extended tenure for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whose vote has been decisive over the years on 5-4 rulings that upheld abortion rights, sustained affirmative action and limited the application of the death penalty.
Bush issued a statement saying the 60-year-old Miers would remain as White House counsel and praising "her extraordinary legal experience, her character, and her conservative judicial philosophy."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told reporters, "I expect a nominee quickly ... within days," and held out the possibility of confirmation hearings before Christmas.
The White House worked to depict the collapse of Miers' nomination as a simple matter of principle - upholding executive privilege.
However, in an interview two weeks ago, Republican Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had said when asked about possible withdrawal: "I think that would be a sign of incredible weakness."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Miers informed Bush of her decision Wednesday night.
In the Senate, Frist had been in periodic contact with officials at the White House on Wednesday, offering increasingly dour assessments of Miers' chances for success. Frist's spokesman, Bob Stevenson, said the senator talked to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card during the evening to offer a "frank assessment of her prospects in the committee and the Senate as a whole."
In fact, her nomination never seemed to take hold in the Senate, given the surprise that greeted her appointment, her lack of experience as a judge, the sustained criticism from conservatives in the face of repeated endorsements from Bush.
"However nice, helpful, prompt and tidy she is, Harriet Miers isn't qualified to play a Supreme Court justice on 'The West Wing,' let alone to be a real one," conservative columnist Ann Coulter said in one of the more cutting comments.
Additionally, Miers failed to generate enthusiasm for her nomination in private meetings with individual senators, according to many lawmakers. Some senators, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the sessions, described her as soft-spoken and reticent and difficult to draw out on the type of issues likely to come before the court.
There were fresh problems at mid-week, including the disclosure of a speech Miers delivered in 1993 that touched on the issues of abortion and voluntary school prayer. "The underlying theme in most of these cases is the insistence of more self-determination. And the more I think about these issues, the more self-determination makes the most sense," she said, remarks that sparked fresh criticism from conservative groups.
Specter had released a letter stating he intended to question Miers about constitutional issues in the war on terror, including the administration's policy of open-ended detention of suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also said he wanted assurances that Miers would rule without showing "special deference" to Bush if confirmed.