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For social conservatives, it just doesn't add up

WASHINGTON -- Even with control of the White House and Senate, the Republican Party doesn't have the votes to put an open opponent of abortion rights on the Supreme Court.

That's the message behind President George W. Bush's two Supreme Court picks. It may have been a simple matter of math for the White House, but it has added up to a bitter equation for social conservatives.

Last week was a time of intense frustration in the conservative movement, and it wasn't because of any particular deficiency of Bush nominee Harriet Miers: It was because Bush felt compelled to nominate someone like Miers -- a candidate with no record on abortion rights or other social issues -- and implicitly conceded that an openly conservative nominee wouldn't be confirmed.

''After working for 20 years to get to this point, to elect a president and a Republican Senate, a Republican House to change the direction of this court, to avoid the liberals being able to institutionalize their beliefs in the court . . . [the Miers nomination] has disappointed some of them," radio host Rush Limbaugh said of his listeners. ''They feel that we could win the fight, and that we could win the fight handily, and it would be a nail in the coffin of the left."

Limbaugh and others who have bemoaned the Miers nomination were clearly ready for a fight in Congress, but cooler heads in the White House felt it would be an impossible victory.

In criticizing Miers, many social conservatives hankered for another woman, Texas appeals court Judge Edith Jones, an open critic of the Roe v. Wade decision that granted abortion rights.

Last year, in the case of McCorvey v. Hill, which sought to reopen Roe v. Wade, Jones wrote: ''That the [Supreme] court's constitutional decisionmaking leaves our nation in a position of willful blindness to evolving knowledge should trouble any dispassionate observer not only about abortion decisions, but about a number of other areas in which the court unhesitatingly steps into the realm of social policy under the guise of constitutional adjudication."

Strong words, and Jones, 56, is well known both for her legal acumen and her willingness to take uncompromising stands. But she would run into a buzz saw in the Senate.

Democrats have shown uncharacteristic unity in blocking openly right-wing judicial nominees, and Jones' record is as conservative as any. A Jones nomination would almost certainly be opposed by all 44 Democrats and Independent James Jeffords of Vermont, who usually votes with the Democrats.

In addition, Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have all urged Bush to choose a moderate Supreme Court nominee, and would feel betrayed by the choice of Jones.

Thus, Bush's opponents would be able to count on 49 votes against Jones before the confirmation hearings even began -- that is, before Jones would be grilled relentlessly, with her many strong-worded legal opinions and fiery speeches dissected on TV.

Then, even if the White House could hold the remaining Republicans in line, Democrats would block the nomination through a filibuster. Senate rules require 60 votes to end the filibuster, and the GOP doesn't have them. Republican leaders would try to change Senate rules, as they did last spring, to force a simple majority vote. But this time it would seem less like a matter of principle than a back-door attempt to win confirmation for a controversial nominee.

Last spring, the move to change Senate rules was opposed by Republican mavericks, including John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Herding those cats back into line would require an unusual combination of White House arm-twisting and grass-roots lobbying -- something all four resisted last spring. And in changing Senate rules to push through a particular nominee, the White House couldn't necessarily count on other independent-minded GOP senators such as George Voinovich of Ohio and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. There aren't enough carrots and sticks in White House to win over all those senators in the best of times, and these haven't been the best of times for Bush.

The numbers just don't add up. Limbaugh and his listeners may be armed for battle, but their fight was effectively over last spring, when the GOP failed to change the filibuster rules.

Now, social conservatives must wait to see if Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Miers prove to be right-wingers; it could be a long, painful wait.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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