A Republican surrender

Robert Novak
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Posted: Feb 09, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Manuel Miranda, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's staff lawyer who ran his judicial confirmation campaign, last Friday resigned under pressure. His scalp was demanded by Democrats, and Republicans complied. That showed who is ready and willing to play the tough partisan game in the U.S. Senate -- and who is not.

Frist's willingness to throw his own aide overboard concluded a spectacular exhibition of the muscular Democratic minority's triumph of the will, personified by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. By a stroke of luck, Republicans had found a trail of e-mail messages by Democrats that exposed a coolly crafted plan to reject President Bush's federal judges. But Democrats managed to turn their own corruption of Senate confirmations into bipartisan outrage over a staffer leaking a senator's sacrosanct communications.

Making Manny Miranda a scapegoat confirms Democratic success at hijacking the confirmation process. Frist can get neither the super majority of 60 senators needed to break filibusters nor the simple majority of 51 needed to change the rules. The Republican recourse to cry "shame" at Democratic perfidy looks feeble in light of the GOP surrender in the Miranda affair.

However, Miranda's "departure statement" Friday signaled a fight still could be made. Asserting that some Democratic documents "recorded collusive, partisan considerations in the confirmation process and much worse," he said "only a small amount of these have been made public. The ones made public are the least indicting of the ones I came to see." That material is now in the hands of the sergeant at arms, an employee of Frist.

Nearly a year ago on Feb. 27, 2003, I reported in this column that Ted Kennedy had devised a "grand design" to keep Bush from taking over the federal judiciary. I attributed direct quotes about his filibuster scheme to "internal sources," and Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic staffers recognized language from their own e-mails. The Wall Street Journal last November published parts of 15 such messages, which later were posted on a Web site.

The messages expose the symbiotic relationship between senior Democratic senators and left-wing pressure groups, even plots to coordinate confirmation hearings with pending court procedure. Republicans had a smoking gun, evidence that Democrats have politicized the Constitution's "advise and consent" clause.

The reaction by Democrats was audacious, borrowing from the Nixon White House's approach to publication of the Pentagon Papers three decades ago. Just as the Republicans then deflected attention from disclosures about the Vietnam War revelation by attacking the leakers and journalists, the assault on the Judiciary Committee e-mail leak obscured the disclosures.

The difference this time was that Republican senators agreed that the real scandal was the leak, not the leaked material. Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, displaying greater indignation than he ever did about the filibusters, called himself "mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files may have occurred on my watch."

Hatch then accused an unnamed former Judiciary Committee staffer -- clearly fingering Miranda, who on Feb. 5, 2003, left Hatch's staff and joined Frist's. Hatch in November did not reveal that Miranda had just volunteered to Republican-appointed Senate Sergeant-at-Arms William Pickle that the e-mails had become known to Republicans through a computer glitch.

Frist at that time did not want to antagonize Senate Democrats needed to pass the super-expensive Medicare bill against no-votes by nine Republican senators. Even after that measure passed, however, Frist did not address what was revealed in the e-mails. Nor did he come to the defense of his aide Miranda, who was treated shabbily by both Frist and Hatch.

"No unauthorized hacking was involved," Miranda said in his departure statement. "I considered and studied the propriety of reading these documents. I knew that in legal ethics there is no absolute prohibition on reading opposition documents inadvertently disclosed." On the contrary, he concluded, "a prohibition on the reading of such documents" would violate the Code of Ethics of Government Service.

Manny Miranda is a man of principle who was betrayed by his bosses in the interests of maintaining an artificial comity with their Democratic colleagues. Now they must decide what to do with those unread e-mails hidden in the safe of the sergeant at arms.