The nomination of former Interior Solicitor William Myers
to the federal bench came under fire yesterday as opponents
charged Myers with misleading the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Two advocacy groups -- the Community Rights Counsel (CRC)
and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
-- yesterday released a letter from the lawyers of Wyoming
rancher Frank Robbins stating Myers and other top Interior
Department officials had full knowledge of a grazing settlement
between the rancher and the federal government. Myers last
month told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had no prior
knowledge of the controversial settlement with Robbins.
The 12-page letter goes on to say that "all relevant
parties within the Department of Justice and the Department
of Interior were kept informed about all aspects of the negotiations
and the settlement agreement." The law firm released
a cover sheet of a fax sent Nov. 13, 2002 -- several weeks
before the agreement was signed -- to Myers and several other
officials asking if "anyone [has] any other changes to
the Robbins' settlement agreement."
Marc Stimpert, a Kansas-based attorney with the Budd-Falen
law offices representing Robbins, confirmed last night that
he wrote the letter but did not say to whom it was sent. "It
was sent out to some folks with the intent of telling the
truth and so anyone who wanted to know the truth could see
it," Stimpert said.
The controversy stems from a 2002 agreement that absolved
Robbins from penalties associated with 16 violations of grazing
laws and limited future enforcement actions for similar violations.
The deal was widely criticized by environmental groups who
charged it was put in place because of Robbins' political
connections. The agreement was later voided by the Interior
Judiciary Committee Democrats repeatedly questioned Myers
-- a nominee for the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals -- during his committee hearing last month
about how such a deal could take place without his knowledge.
During his testimony, Myers said he allowed other lawyers
to handle the negotiations and that he did not play a role
in the settlement discussions or approve the settlement. "I
was not involved in the negotiations or discussion of that
settlement, other than to tell the subordinate attorney that
he had authority to settle that case," Myers said at
the hearing when asked by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about
A report released by Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney
earlier this year also absolved Myers of any wrongdoing in
the matter and singled out former Associate Solicitor Bob
Comer and others for withholding crucial information from
other Interior officials.
Officials from CRC and PEER sent a letter to Senate Judiciary
Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking member Patrick
Leahy (D-Vt.) stating that the most recent documents directly
contradict Myers' statements. "We urge the committee
to investigate this new information, with inquiries directed
to Mr. Myers, Mr. Comer, and Ms. Budd-Falen, before Mr. Myers'
nomination is considered on the Senate floor," the groups
Myers was voted out of committee by a 10-8 party-line vote
last month and is expected to be the first of President Bush's
half-dozen previously filibustered nominees to hit the Senate
floor in the next few weeks.
Specter has previously said Myers was brought up first during
the 109th Congress because he had the best chance of the stalled
nominees to gain confirmation this time around.
According to Specter, there are already 58 votes -- all 55
Republicans plus Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)
and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) -- to end a filibuster on Myers,
and several other Democrats may be convinced to vote with
the GOP majority. "If senators who are considering Myers
come through, we might have 60," Specter said last week.
But the most recent revelations concerning Myers will most
likely provide further ammunition to Democrats and environmental
groups seeking to block his nomination.
"The allegations raised by Mr. Robbins' attorney directly
contradict Mr. Myers' written response to a question I submitted,"
said committee member Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). "The
Judiciary Committee should investigate these allegations immediately."
Frist still weighing 'nuclear option'
The most recent controversy over Myers' nomination comes as
the Senate barrels toward a fight over the "nuclear option"
that could result in a near shutdown of Senate activity. Senators
on both sides of the aisle have said that Myers' nomination
could be used by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)
to implement a rule change that would essentially end filibusters
on judicial nominees.
Democrats counter that they would bring the Senate to a standstill
if the GOP makes such a change. Senators from both parties
said in recent weeks that the issue has emerged as one of
the most contentious the chamber has dealt with in decades,
and numerous advocacy groups are involved in the escalating
rhetoric from both sides.
Frist indicated yesterday he would like to reach some sort
of compromise, though he remained intent on forcing President
Bush's nominees through the Senate.
Frist said that he would propose in the next couple of weeks
a compromise that would allow the Senate to avoid a showdown
over the nuclear option. Frist did not disclose what the compromise
would entail, but he called on the Senate to "lower the
rhetoric" on the issue and to work toward some sort of
Still, Frist stood firm in his belief that Senate Democrats
were violating Senate rules by filibustering nominees and
said he would continue to press for up-or-down votes on all
the nominees. "This is about principle," Frist said.
"This is about a constitutional responsibility."
In recent days, several other members of the GOP caucus said
they would like to avoid a confrontation that would prevent
the Senate from handling numerous other pieces of legislation
-- including a comprehensive energy bill.
"I'm just hopeful we can make some sort of compromise,
but I don't know what the compromise will be," said Sen.
John McCain (R-Ariz.). "There's been ways of working
these things out."
McCain said over the weekend that he would vote against implementation
of the nuclear option because it would set a "dangerous
precedent" for future Senate activity. McCain's opposition
further shrinks the level of support in the GOP caucus for
implementing the rule change.
Along with McCain, Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine)
and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) have said they would vote against
the nuclear option. Several others -- including Sens. John
Warner (R-Va.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)
-- have indicated they are hesitant to support such a proposal.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on the Senate floor yesterday
said the chamber needs to "avoid this train wreck."
Alexander added that the Senate could avoid any future confrontations
on the filibuster of nominees if six members from each side
of the aisle vow to never oppose an appellate judicial nominee,
regardless of which party held the White House.
Frist refused to comment yesterday on whether he had the 51
votes needed to change the Senate's rule.
Democrats, meanwhile, have shown no signs that they would
be willing to either agree to a change in the Senate rules
or allow confirmation of several of President Bush's more
controversial nominees. Senate Democrats and their supporters
have held several rallies on Capitol Hill vowing to continue
opposing Bush's nominees.
"Senate Democrats are the only thing standing between
President Bush and total power," said Senate Minority
Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at a rally this week.
Reporter Dan Berman contributed to this article.