Specter Campaign Crumbling

Sources on Capitol Hill and in the White House suggest Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R.-Penn.) campaign to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee may be crumbling just as it began. Still, opponents of Specter’s run face an uphill battle.

Specter’s comments, the day after the election, warning Bush about sending up pro-life judges, have ignited in a firestorm that could sink Specter’s bid. A grass-roots lobbying effort using the internet, phones and fax machines has bloomed, tying up phone lines of Republican Senators.

Despite his presumption to the chair, Specter is still in the position of needing to convince a majority of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee and a majority of the Senate Republican Conference that he is the best man for the job. Conference rules explicitly state that a committee chairman, “need not be the member with the longest consecutive service on such committee.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) is the current chairman, but newly instituted GOP term limits on committee chairmanships require him to step down. Second in seniority is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa), but conference rules prohibit the chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee to chair any other committee. Grassley has repeatedly said he would not surrender the Finance gavel.

Next in seniority is Specter. Conservative Hill staffers, though, are quick to point out that he is far from guaranteed the spot. The rules explicitly discounting seniority are new, as are the term limits. Hatch would be among the first chairmen to surrender his gavel despite being the senior committee member and having no other major chairmanship. In short, Hill staffers point out, we are on unprecedented turf.

Some GOP Senate staff began in the summer to consider skipping over Specter and electing the No. 4 member on the committee, Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.). That plan was aborted, but Specter’s comments have revived it. Kyl has a lifetime ACU rating of 97% to Specter’s 43%.

The early deliberations of electing Kyl over Specter sprang from reflection on Specter’s 24-year record in the Senate. Specter was the most important player in the 1986 rejection of Robert Bork for the high court. He is also staunchly pro-choice.

Business interests are also worried that a Chairman Specter would derail the President’s tort reform agenda, and at least one business representative plans on making that known on the Hill this week.

The chairman is elected by a majority of the Republican members of the reconstituted committee. Committee member Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) has suggested he is undecided on whom he would back for chairman, telling the AP, “We’ll have to see where he stands.”

Currently, there are 10 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. Committee staff conjecture that Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) would like to leave Judiciary. Republican leadership hopes they can get 11 GOP members on the committee after reorganizing the Senate.

That would leave two vacancies. Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.), one of the Senate’s leading pro-lifers, wants a spot. Presumably the other vacancy would be filled by a freshman. Of the incoming freshmen, Sen.-elect David Vitter (R.-La.) and Sen.-elect Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) are lawyers.

Another committee Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) owes his job to Specter in a perverse way. Specter was key in defeating Sessions’ appointment to the federal bench during the Reagan Administration.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also on the committee, has gone on the record about the situation telling the New York Times, “The original comments attributed to Senator Specter were very unnerving??¢â???¬ ¦. His statement clarifying his position is reassuring, and I hope we will work our way through this.”

Much of the election of a chairman will rest on the input of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) and Conference Chairman Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Penn.). Neither has publicly commented, but Santorum saved Specter from certain defeat in his April primary by campaigning for his Pennsylvania colleague.

Top Bush advisor Karl Rove said on “Meet the Press” Sunday, “Senator Specter is a man of his word. We’ll take him at his word” regarding support for President Bush’s appointments. Rove also said, about the chairman election, “That’s up to the United States Senate to decide, not the President of the United States. And just as we wouldn’t like them to decide who are the staff assistants of the White House, they certainly do not want us determining who’s committee chairman on the Hill.”