President Bush on Wednesday defended potential Supreme Court nominee Alberto Gonzales, under attack from conservatives, as White House officials reached out to Democrats. The party’s top senator said the attorney general was qualified but would not necessarily get “an easy way through” confirmation.
Even before Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her plans to retire, some conservatives had begun warning Bush about selecting Gonzales, the former White House counsel. They objected to his record on abortion and affirmative action.
Liberals have expressed reservations about Gonzales’ decisions on treatment of detainees, death penalty cases and executive privilege.
At a news conference during his European trip, Bush defended Gonzales, a friend since the president’s time as Texas governor.
“I don’t like it when a friend gets criticized. I’m loyal to my friends,” Bush told reporters in Copenhagen, Denmark. “All of a sudden this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire. And so, do I like it? No, I don’t like it, at all.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a frequent critic of Bush, said Gonzales had the credentials to sit on the court. But Reid indicated confirmation might not be smooth.
The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Gonzales as attorney general by a 60-36 vote, despite complaints from Democrats that he had had a role in establishing White House policies that led to the abuse of prisoners in the terrorism fight. Gonzales would be the first Hispanic justice ever on the high court.
“Alberto Gonzales is qualified. He’s attorney general of the United States and a former Texas judge. But having said that he’s qualified, I don’t know if he’d have an easy way through,” Reid said in Las Vegas.
Some of the harshest criticism of Gonzales has come from the right, and Reid chided conservatives for that. “I think it’s too bad the president has to respond in Denmark about statements from the far right,” he said.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, third-ranking in the Democratic leadership, issued a statement that avoided saying Gonzales was qualified for the high court.
“Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has a very strong resume, but until a nominee is thoroughly vetted and their positions on the issues are fully understood, it is premature to make any final decisions,” said Schumer, who opposed Gonzales’ confirmation as attorney general.
Bush urged senators to ignore the heated rhetoric from both sides and engage in a civil discussion during confirmation hearings on whomever he nominates to replace O’Connor, who often was the crucial swing vote on the closely divided court.
The Republican president’s choice could shape the court for years to come. That is not lost on liberal and conservative groups gearing up multimillion-dollar campaigns to support or oppose the nominee.
“I hope the United States Senate conducts themselves in a way that brings dignity to the process, and that the senators don’t listen to the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity for not only their _ what they may think is right, but also for their own fundraising capabilities,” Bush said.
Bush could have more than one seat to fill if Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist also steps down this summer. Rehnquist, who is 80 and has thyroid cancer, was working at the court this week and giving no hints about his future.
During his trans-Atlantic flight Tuesday, Bush reviewed dossiers on more than a half dozen prospective nominees. He said he wanted a new justice in place when the court’s term begins in October.
Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, called several Democratic senators, including Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Schumer. White House Counsel Harriet Miers and former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie met with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., on Capitol Hill.
Moving forward on the process, the president asked former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., to help shepherd his nominee through the Senate. Thompson, 62, an actor on the NBC television series “Law & Order,” retired from the Senate in 2002.
Reflecting the politically charged atmosphere, that decision drew criticism from the Democratic National Committee. It said “blurring the line between fact and fiction is nothing new for our Republican colleagues” and that a solid nominee wouldn’t need the help of an “actor and high-paid lobbyist.”
At his news conference, Bush reiterated his campaign pledge that there would be no litmus test for his nominee on issues such as abortion.
“I’ll pick people who, one, can do the job, people who are honest, people who are bright, and people who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not use the bench to legislate from,” he said.
Several conservatives argue, however, that Gonzales’ record on abortion is a strike against him. Abortion, said Cathie Adams of the Dallas-based Texas Eagle Forum, is the “watershed issue for pro-family conservatives.”
In March 2000, Gonzales, then a Texas Supreme Court judge appointed by Bush, joined the majority in ruling that a 17-year-old girl could seek an abortion without telling her parents.
Gonzales also upset abortion foes during his confirmation hearing for attorney general when he described the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion as the “law of the land” and promised to enforce it.
In a letter to Bush, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged him to consider qualified jurists “who, pre-eminently, support the protection of human life from conception to natural death.” Bishop William S. Skylstad said his organization would neither endorse nor oppose any nominee.
Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann reported from Copenhagen, Denmark.
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