As the right thunders, its favorite senators are silent

Bush's base doesn't like his Supreme Court pick, and the Senate's most conservative Republicans don't have much to say at all.

Published October 3, 2005 7:40PM (EDT)

George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers drew a flurry of reaction -- mostly negative -- from conservative bloggers this morning, and now some of the heavier hitters in the president's base are beginning to weigh in. Their early take: Something between cautious concern and outright dismay about the president's Supreme Court nominee. The big question: How will the most conservative members of the Senate respond?

Tony Perkins, the head of the far-right Family Research Council, issued what the group called a "cautious response" on the Miers nomination. "President Bush has long made it clear that his choices for the U.S. Supreme Court would be in the mold of current justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas," Perkins said. "We have no reason to believe he has abandoned that standard. However, our lack of knowledge about Harriet Miers, and the absence of a record on the bench, give us insufficient information from which to assess whether or not she is indeed in that mold."

Jan LaRue, chief counsel of the conservative Concerned Women for America, said her organization will give Miers the benefit of the doubt -- but only because of Bush's track record, not hers. Manuel Miranda, who has worked hard to get Bush's other nominees through Congress, said that conservatives will view the Miers nomination as "possibly the most unqualified choice" in four decades. "The nomination of a nominee with no judicial record is a significant failure for the advisors that the White House gathered around it," he complained.

Appearing on CNN, Sen. Orrin Hatch acknowledged that Republicans may be suffering some "gastric distress" over the Miers nomination, but he insisted that they should have no worries. "I think they're concerned because they don't know Harriet Miers like I do and like the president does," Hatch said. He said that conservatives may not yet view Miers as a judge in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- which is to say, the kind of judge Bush promised to nominate -- but that she'll prove to be a "solid, decent strict constructionist on the court."

Although Hatch's views are important, the former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman isn't really one of the men to watch right now. That distinction belongs to senators arguably farther out on the right fringe, men like Sam Brownback, George Allen and Rick Santorum. Each has political concerns to factor in -- for Brownback and Allen, the 2008 Republican presidential nomination; for Santorum, a 2006 reelection fight. In the Miers nomination, any one of them may see an opportunity to separate himself from Bush -- and in doing so give other Republicans the space (or the need) to do the same. If there will be Republican defections on the Miers nomination, they will start with the Brownbacks and Allens and Santorums of the world -- and not with Bush loyalists like Hatch.

So what are the far-right senators saying so far about Miers? Not much. Allen issued a statement saying that Bush has "an outstanding track record of nominating fair-minded men and women" to the court but reserving judgment on the Miers nomination. Santorum issued a statement saying that he was "pleased that the president has named his choice to replace Justice O'Connor" and that he intends to "carefully review the nominee's credentials and assess her qualifications and commitment to the rule of law." And Brownback said ... well, Brownback said nothing at all. A spokesman for the Kansas senator told War Room that he won't be making any sort of statement about the nominee at least until tomorrow -- a nonreaction reaction the spokesman called "conspicuous silence."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Rick Santorum Sam Brownback R-kan. Supreme Court