Clarence for Chief

Robert Novak

11/20/2004 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

 WASHINGTON -- Sentiment in conservative circles strongly favors promoting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to chief justice if ailing William Rehnquist leaves the nation's top judicial position.

 President Bush's nomination of Thomas would guarantee a tough confirmation fight. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who voted against confirming Thomas for associate justice, has signaled he also would oppose him for chief justice. In addition, Thomas is reportedly unwilling to undergo another confirmation battle. However, Thomas at age 56 would ensure long-term conservative leadership at the court.

 The Thomas boosters would like his place on the court filled by Washington lawyer Theodore Olson, who recently resigned as solicitor general. Other conservatives are launching a campaign to boost the 63-year-old Olson for chief justice.

SCHUMER'S EGO

 Sen. Charles Schumer, who this week took himself out of the 2006 contest for governor of New York, is saying privately that polls show he could have easily defeated State Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer in the Democratic primary for governor but he stayed out for reasons of party unity.

 Actually, Schumer may have been most influenced by a Federal Election Commission (FEC) opinion that barred him from spending on a campaign for governor any of the funds he raised for his easy Senate re-election. Of his $27 million in Senate campaign funds, the most recent FEC report shows $13.8 million not spent.

 A footnote: New York Democrats believe Spitzer's run for governor is preliminary to a future run for president. Confronting Schumer in the primary would have been a serious bump in the road for Spitzer.

PROTECTING DeLAY

 The closed-door meeting of House Republicans Wednesday that was supposed to quickly protect House Majority Leader Tom DeLay from a political indictment turned into a contentious debate lasting several hours. Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, the appointed chairman of the House Republican Leadership, came up with a compromise that won assent.

 The original proposal would have simply repealed the 1993 Republican rule requiring the resignation from the House party leadership of any member who is criminally indicted. The Portman compromise sets up a review by the House Republican Steering Committee of each case.

 The change in the rule was inspired by the prospect that Democratic District Atty. Ronnie Earle in Austin, Texas, may soon indict DeLay in connection with his successful congressional redistricting in Texas. At Wednesday's conference, several Republican House members expressed fear that a straight repeal of the rule would send a bad political message.

DUPLICITOUS SENATORS

 Shortly after Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina was elected Senate Republican campaign chairman with support from 28 senators, she was approached by 29 senators saying they had voted for her in the secret ballot.

 The Senate Republican Conference elected Dole, 28 to 27, over Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Just one week before the vote, Coleman had 32 senators personally committed to him. Coleman thought Dole's late-starting campaign had 19 votes at the most.

 The sign that Coleman was in serious trouble came when Sen. George Allen of Virginia, the highly successful outgoing chairman, endorsed Dole. She also benefited from backing of allies of her husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

REVIVING ANWR

 Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, plans to push authorization of oil drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) through the new, more conservative Senate next year.

 ANWR drilling was defeated 52 to 48 when the issue was last addressed on the Senate floor in March 2003. This year's election has produced a net gain of three senators in favor of the proposal for a positive tally of 51 to 49.

 Tentative plans are for ANWR to be tucked into next year's budget bill. It then would take only a simple majority of 51 votes in the 100-member Senate under budget reconciliation to authorize drilling, while 60 senators are needed to break a filibuster if the bill was considered separately.