Hatch’s Backing Boosts Specter

Posted November 16, 2004 at 6:51pm

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has secured the support of several key veteran GOP Senators and appears to have successfully fought off the insurgent campaign mounted by conservatives to deny him the Judiciary Committee gavel.

Emerging from a more than 90-minute meeting with all 10 GOP panel members Tuesday evening, outgoing Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Specter appears to have convinced his colleagues that he should succeed Hatch as chairman.

“Nobody in the meeting was against Arlen,” Hatch said after the meeting held in Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) office in the Capitol. “Frankly, I’m for him, as I should be. I expect him to have the support of the committee.”

Specter, who had an additional 90-minute meeting Monday morning with the GOP leadership team, declined to declare himself the next chairman, citing internal Republican Conference rules which technically stipulate that chairmen aren’t selected until the new Congress convenes in January.

While conservative activists continued to flood Senate phone lines with calls and even held a “pray-in” attempting to block his ascension, Specter used the meetings to reassure colleagues he deserves to win the chairmanship.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Judiciary member, said he expected Specter to make a full public statement today, most likely after the Republican leadership elections, that would lay out how the Pennsylvanian would lead as chairman.

“It will be reassuring,” Graham predicted.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), also on Judiciary, said he wanted to reserve his judgment on Specter until he saw the statement.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called it a “good discussion” with Specter, but withheld making his own judgment on the matter.

Frist said that Specter’s “dialogue” with his colleagues would continue at the leadership elections and through most of today, but didn’t specify when precisely the issue would be brought to a head. He complimented Specter for the hard work he’s put forward trying nail down his support.

“Arlen has done a tremendous job reaching out to all of the Senators,” Frist said.

At least a dozen Republicans have made public statements supporting Specter, ranging from sometimes maverick Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) to conservatives such as Sens. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Bob Bennett (Utah).

“It’s a tempest in the teapot. He clearly ought to be chairman,” said Bennett.

Bennett, the Chief Deputy Whip, and Gregg, who holds the unofficial title of Frist’s counsel, both attended the leadership meeting with Specter in Frist’s office Tuesday morning.

Specter and leadership aides publicly tried to hew to the GOP rules and noted the process in place for naming a chairman; first, a secret ballot of Republican Judiciary members in January requiring a majority vote, followed by a full GOP Conference vote.

But privately Senators acknowledged that they very much wanted to resolve the matter this week, not wanting to leave it dangling for many weeks and through the holidays.

Also, underscoring the importance of creating stability to the Judiciary Committee, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales was in the Capitol on Tuesday evening to meet privately with Senators to discuss his nomination as attorney general, for which hearings need to be held in early or mid-January.

While many remain rankled by Specter’s post-election comments that he would have a litmus test on abortion for judicial nominees, a large chunk of the Conference is reluctant to buck what has been the unwritten rule of Senate GOPers for many, many decades: seniority.

“That’s the rules we play by,” said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), explaining his support for Specter.

Some Senate Republicans were reluctant to buck Specter solely because of his moderate views. “I promised Oregonians not to have a single-issue litmus test and I’m not going to begin with Arlen,” said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Others said that Specter, despite a centrist philosophy and his well-established support for abortion rights, had been a supporter of many conservative nominees, including Supreme Court justices. “He was there for Clarence Thomas. He was there for all the nominees in the 108th,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

The only vocal opposition to Specter in the Conference appears to be coming from the incoming freshmen, many of whom railed against Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations on the campaign trail.

The campaign manager for Sen.-elect Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has been one of the leading opponents to Specter becoming chairman, using his temporary role as a lobbyist for the Concerned Women for America as his perch to rail against Specter. Coburn declined to comment on the matter Tuesday.

Sen.-elect David Vitter (R-La.) said he had traded messages with Specter about his comments two weeks ago in which he said an anti-abortion Supreme Court nominee would likely be defeated by a Democratic filibuster. “I have concerns about him being chairman,” Vitter said, adding that he expected to talk to him this week.

But at least one freshmen, Sen.-elect John Thune (R-S.D.), indicated that Specter’s two-week media campaign to back away from what Thune called his “first episode” were reassuring, although he is still reserving judgment.

Specter declined to spell out how he would govern as chairman, specifically avoiding a question about whether he supported a GOP move to unilaterally change chamber rules by a constitutional ruling from the chair that would take just a majority to uphold.

“That whole issue remains for another day,” he said.