Doubts Arise Over Miers' Readiness for Hearings

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Until this week, Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court, although controversial, seemed likely to be confirmed by the Senate. Now, however, doubts have emerged about how well prepared she is for what could be a hostile grilling in confirmation hearings scheduled to begin Nov. 7.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The White House says Harriet Miers will continue paying courtesy calls on senators next week. That's despite advice from some conservatives that the visits she's paid so far are not helping. It's been a generally dreadful week for President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court and an interesting week for our legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Nina, let's recap the highlights of this week.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Well, we began the week with Harriet Miers spending almost two hours with Senator Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a member of her own party. And Specter came out afterwards and said Miers, like many recent nominees, had embraced a right of privacy in the Constitution as embodied in a Supreme Court decision of over 40 years ago. And two hours later, Miers called Specter and said she didn't say what he said she said. And Specter then issued a very terse statement saying he accepted her statement that he had misunderstood her statement.

Then the next day we had the now infamous questionnaire in which Harriet Miers didn't have dates for major events in her life, didn't answer questions that the Senate had specifically tailored for her. And that afternoon, the chairman, Mr. Specter, and the ranking member, Senator Leahy, appeared and said that they were sending it back to her. She flunked the exam and she had a chance to retake it, that it was insufficient, or as Senator Leahy said, the comments ranged from incomplete to insulting.

SIEGEL: Insulting. Hardly a day goes by without some columnist calling for Harriet Miers either to withdraw or to be withdrawn. Any indication that the White House is considering that?

TOTENBERG: Not so far, at least. The senior folks that I've talked to and the people who've been in to see the senior folks at the White House say they are simply not considering withdrawing the nomination. But with just two weeks to go before the hearings are set to start, there is at least the kernel of possibility that the hearings might be postponed.

SIEGEL: So that she presumably can prepare better for those hearings. How is she preparing for them?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, this is a bit of a puzzlement, as is the questionnaire. What I'm told is that the entire Counsel's Office, which she actually heads, has been sort of cabined off. She's not getting help from the Counsel's Office in the White House. She's got a few junior staff members from the White House and the Justice Department who are helping her. And they produced a questionnaire that, frankly, nobody has seen anything like it in decades if ever, it was so incomplete. And they have apparently turned down offers of help from senior Republicans who've offered to come in and help prepare her, and she's got less time now than--she's got just an incredibly small amount of time to get going with this.

SIEGEL: Can she do her preparations as simply preparing to say in response to nearly every question, `I really can't answer that because it might prejudge an issue that might come before the court'?

TOTENBERG: I don't think she can do that anymore because she's botched her first few bites at the apple.

SIEGEL: Well, just a few weeks ago it was John Roberts who was swallowing that apple whole. He was doing brilliantly, wowing the galleries, answering all the questions. What's happened here? Has the Bush White House--is it off its game all of a sudden?

TOTENBERG: John Roberts was not only an experienced Supreme Court hand, but an experienced Washington hand, and he had longer to prepare it than Harriet Miers has. Is Bush off his game? Well, the word `meltdown' is heard a lot these days around Washington.

SIEGEL: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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