White House Takes Over Court Nominee's Prep

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Phil Schiliro i i

hide captionOn The Move: When Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan visited senators last week, she was joined by President Obama's assistant for legislative affairs, Phil Schiliro (left). On the same day, White House staffers delivered Kagan's responses to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

AP
Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Phil Schiliro

On The Move: When Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan visited senators last week, she was joined by President Obama's assistant for legislative affairs, Phil Schiliro (left). On the same day, White House staffers delivered Kagan's responses to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

AP
White House staffers deliver to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the responses of their questions. i i
AP
White House staffers deliver to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the responses of their questions.
AP

While the public face of the White House has been focused almost wholly on the oil spill in the Gulf in recent weeks, another massive effort is playing out behind the scenes.

A team has been shepherding U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan through the steps leading up to her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

And that marks a change from the past two presidential administrations. If you had wanted to see the place where a Supreme Court nominee was getting ready for confirmation then, you would have headed to the Justice Department.

That's where former Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand oversaw preparations for Samuel Alito and John Roberts to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. Mock confirmation hearings took place in her conference room on the fourth floor.

"It's a ceremonial conference room, with formal historical portraits of attorneys general on the walls" around a large wooden table, Brand said.

"And we would have the nominee sit on one side of the table and have four or five lawyers sit across from him playing senators," she said, "throwing questions out back and forth."

A New Nerve Center

During the Bush and Clinton administrations, the Justice Department was the nerve center for this process. Today, it has moved.

If you see Kagan walking the halls of Congress, she won't have a Justice official parting the sea of journalists as she approaches a senator. Kagan's entourage includes members of the White House counsel's office, the White House legislative affairs office and Vice President Joe Biden's staff.

The mock confirmation hearings are expected to take place at the White House — not the conference room where Bush administration lawyers grilled Roberts and Alito.

Back at the Justice Department, the man who occupies Brand's old job waited almost a year to be confirmed. He only moved into his office a few weeks ago.

"When you have so many positions at the deputy level that have not been filled, then I think you have no choice but to run the operation out of the White House," says Martha Kumar of Towson University, who studies the presidency.

White House Control

But even if every agency had been fully staffed months ago, people in and outside of the administration say this is a controlling White House by its nature.

Projects that the Bush and Clinton administrations might have entrusted to the departments of Justice, State or Defense are now centered at the White House instead. That's true of national security policies, legislative initiatives and more.

Outside groups working on the Kagan confirmation complain that the White House is overbearing.

Advocates say they felt pressure to endorse Kagan before they were ready, and they complain that the White House tries to micromanage interview requests for outside groups.

There's a daily conference call and a weekly meeting in person, to make sure the outside groups are singing from the White House's hymnal.

That's on top of the regular memos establishing talking points for each day.

One recent example read, "By making public Elena Kagan's college thesis, Elena Kagan and the Obama White House are raising the bar on transparency."

At the same time, these groups acknowledge that the clampdown worked during President Obama's first Supreme Court nomination, of Sonia Sotomayor. So they begrudgingly go along.

Kumar says this tendency to micromanage is not unusual for a young administration. And she says it could change with time.

"Gradually, they learn to not just trust, but learn that there's so many things that can be done in the bureaucracy," she says. "And they learn that they just simply can't do everything out of the White House, because they're going to burn through people."

But for now, the Obama administration is even making a break with the old confirmation lingo. When asked about Kagan's "war room," one White House official called that phrase a Clinton-era term. The administration now refers to it as a confirmation team.

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