Democrats Split on Bush’s Consultation

Posted September 7, 2005 at 6:45pm

Senate Democrats remain divided over whether President Bush engaged in “meaningful consultation” before initially nominating John Roberts to the Supreme Court seven weeks ago, setting up the potential for a continuing rift within the Caucus over how to interpret the process leading up to his next pick for the nation’s highest court.

One camp in the Democratic Caucus believes that Bush was merely trying to placate Senators by listening to their ideas and grievances but didn’t engage in any real deliberation with the Senate before selecting Roberts as his first court nominee July 19.

“There was none,” Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said flatly. “If there was any consultation, I missed it.”

But another group of Democrats applauded Bush’s efforts to reach out to Republicans and Democrats, contending that the White House offered them as much of an ear as could be expected.

“I thought it went well,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

“I think it went very well,” echoed Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

Some Democrats have been left embittered by the recent process and fully expect Bush to pick whomever he sees fit for the job without seeking their input. Yet others in the Senate minority believe the process surrounding Roberts’ selection was effective and should serve as the model for how to make the next pick.

Durbin said he doesn’t expect the White House to do anything differently this time around. “I don’t know why the Bush administration would change that approach,” he said.

In particular, Durbin pointed to a meeting Bush hosted with leaders from the Senate and Judiciary Committee in which only “generalities” and not specific names the president was leaning toward were discussed. Durbin also complained that Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was notified of Roberts’ choice less than 90 minutes before Bush went on national television to make the announcement — and only a handful of minutes before the choice went out on The Associated Press wire.

Nelson, however, said some Democrats were expecting too much from Bush and that, while their voices might not have been heard on the Roberts selection, those opinions are now registered and might help guide him in this second Supreme Court pick.

“They reached out and asked for input, and that’s what was helpful,” he said, adding, “I didn’t expect them to call and ask my opinion and have them take it as an order.”

Officially, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is calling for greater consultation on the second selection, although he has not made it as much of a priority as he did in June and early July.

“Meaningful consultation is the key to making the process work,” said Rebecca Kirszner, Reid’s spokeswoman.

With such a sharp division in views of the process that led to Roberts’ selection, the issue has received little attention in Democratic quarters as the White House begins its search for a second Supreme Court nominee, which is expected sometime in the next few weeks.

This stands in stark contrast to the run-up to the Roberts nomination, when, even before Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her intention to retire July 1, Democrats were holding near-daily press conferences demanding Bush consult with them on a Supreme Court nod. In late June, Reid sent Bush a letter demanding consultation on the yet-to-be-announced opening — following in the footsteps of Reid’s predecessor, former Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who sent Bush similar missives during his first term.

After O’Connor’s announcement, Bush made initial phone calls to all top Senate leaders. After returning from a trip to Europe, he convened a meeting of Senate leaders and then he and his aides talked to more than 60 Senators in total.

The White House and Senate Republicans contended this effort was unprecedented in the history of Supreme Court selections, even winning praise from critics such as Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who helped craft a portion of the “Gang of 14” deal that mandated greater consultation with the Senate. Warner said the Roberts process was the best in his 27 years in the Senate.

“It measured up to and exceeded what other presidents have done,” he said Wednesday, adding he hoped Bush will replicate that effort.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leader of the Gang of 14 pact in May that averted the filibuster showdown, said he took Bush at his word that there would again be a similar level of consultation. “He intends to go through the same process,” McCain said.

But some Democrats, particularly Durbin and Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.), dismiss the effort on Roberts as “political cover,” according to one Democratic strategist.

That aide said Bush’s consultation was designed to satisfy the minimum standard of the provision in the Gang of 14 deal, which was co-authored by Warner and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). By fighting the Supreme Court issue on procedural grounds, Democrats allowed Bush to meet that threshold by merely convening and making phone calls without real detailed deliberations.

On the second nomination, these Democrats want to train their fire not on the process but on the actual nominee and his or her record, believing that’s what the public will care most about.

But some Democrats are still hoping for a meaningful give-and-take. One leadership aide stressed that “meaningful consultation” meant more than just “giving us a heads up after the choice has been made,” and called instead for a similar level of exchange that then-President Bill Clinton engaged in with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), then ranking member on Judiciary, before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was selected in 1993.

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), a member of the Gang of 14, called the initial process on Roberts a “good effort.” But Salazar agreed somewhat with the criticisms from the liberal wing of his caucus, saying the president should take the next step and be more forthcoming in “the sharing of names” of potential nominees he’s leaning toward appointing.

“I think it was OK,” Salazar said of the July consultation. “I think it could be improved.”