Battle Begins to Stop Specter From Taking Judiciary Chair

Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) is scrambling to rescue his campaign for chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a job that seemed to be his until he made an inflammatory remark about pro-life judges just after the election.

While Specter’s rehabilitation efforts have been met with ominous silence by most key Senate Republicans, his opponents face an uphill battle against Senate tradition and Senate Republican Conference comity.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) and Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.) have not come out publicly in support of Specter’s chairmanship, and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have been generally silent on the issue (see page 3).

Specter is heir-apparent to the gavel because new conference rules impose term-limits on committee chairmen. That means Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), the current chairman, must step down. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa) is second in seniority on the committee, but conference rules prohibit him from chairing Judiciary unless he gives up chairmanship of the Finance Committee, which he has refused to do.

This leaves Specter as the most senior eligible committee member, meaning tradition would dictate his ascension. But Specter’s comments, hours after winning reelection, that confirmation of pro-life judges “would be unlikely,” set off a firestorm, especially after they were carried under an Associated Press headline reading “Specter Warns Bush on Judicial Nominees.”

Specter says Santorum told him this article upset conservatives and encouraged him to issue a clarification. Specter also released the transcript of the interview, which quoted Specter calling Roe v. Wade “inviolate” and comparing it to Brown v. Board of Education as a matter of settled law.

In April, Santorum and President Bush saved Specter from certain defeat by Rep. Pat Toomey (R.-Pa), a conservative primary challenger. Pro-life and conservative voters made Specter’s imminent chairmanship an issue in that campaign.

Specter boasts in his memoirs that he was key to the defeat of Ronald Reagan’s appointments of judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and Jeff Sessions to a U.S. District Court. Bork, he said, held “too narrow” a view of the Constitution, which Specter sees as a “living, growing document, responsive to the needs of a nation.”

While resentment of Specter is not new among conservatives, his post-election comments created an opening to challenge his chairmanship bid. Post-1994 conference rules explicitly state that a committee chairman “need not be the member with the longest consecutive service on such committee.” The choice is up to a vote of Republican committee members ratified by a vote of the whole conference.

Sources indicate the party has never veered from seniority rules in selecting chairmen, but Hatch is the first Judiciary chairman to give up his gavel due to term limits.

The precedent is what makes Frist’s and Santorum’s fence-sitting so striking. Their reluctance to publicly endorse Specter’s chairman campaign shows they are taking conservative criticism to heart.

Many conservative groups, particularly pro-life organizations, have mobilized their members to bombard Judiciary Committee and GOP leadership offices with phone calls, e-mails, and faxes. Tort reform supporters are gearing up a similar movement. Websites, such as and, have sprung up.

Abortion and tort reform both come under jurisdiction of the committee. While Specter has voted for the partial-birth abortion ban, this past time he supported a Democratic amendment inserting a health-of-the-mother exception that would render the ban meaningless. On tort reform, he voted for class-action reform, but was a key force in overturning President Bush’s rewrite of overtime regulations, which are a top source of trial lawyer income.

First-term Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) is the only Judiciary Committee colleague of Specter to go on the record about the situation. The day after Specter’s comments, Cornyn’s words to the press made it clear he did not consider Specter a shoo-in for the job. Last week, he suggested that if Specter would publicly pledge sufficient support for Bush judges, the gavel would be his.

Next in line after Specter is Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.), a staunch conservative, who would love to be chairman, according to committee staff. Some GOP Senate aides are advocating “bloodless” options for stopping Specter, such as giving the gavel to the more senior members.

The conference could waive Hatch’s term-limits because filibusters prevented him from doing his job. Grassley could either be convinced to give up Finance, or (more likely) be allowed to chair both.

With Chief Justice William Rehnquist ill, and other justices aging, speculation is high that the next four years will see two to four Supreme Court vacancies.