All Sides Looking to Specter in DOJ Probe

Posted May 18, 2007 at 6:36pm

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is accustomed to standing alone on a variety of issues. But in last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, he was sitting alone, literally.

Specter was the sole Republican who showed up for the dramatic testimony of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey as Democrats forged ahead in the long- running U.S. attorneys probe.

After noting that his colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), had questioned Comey for more than 23 minutes, Specter appealed for some Republican reinforcements.

“My colleagues should know there are seven Democrats here,” Specter said, looking into the closed-circuit Senate cameras. “It would be appropriate to have a little balance here.”

But the notion of balance did not stop Specter from going on to invoke Watergate in describing Comey’s tale of mass threatened resignations at the Justice Department after the White House apparently overruled it on the controversial warrantless wiretapping program.

The story has “some characteristics of the Saturday night massacre,” Specter said, referring to actual resignations by the attorney general and his deputy under then-President Richard Nixon.

In typical Specter fashion, the famously independent Senator has been a thorn in the side of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — and his backers at the White House — as Democrats have zealously pursued the bungled firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

He has signed onto letters with Democrats and asked probing questions of Gonzales during hearings. In the April 19 Judiciary Committee hearing, he squabbled with Gonzales over how prepared he was to testify in what Specter termed his “reconfirmation” hearing. “I don’t think you’re going to win a debate about your preparation,” Specter said tersely.

Behind the scenes, Democrats say Specter and his staff have been extremely cooperative in questioning Justice Department witnesses giving private interviews. Schumer chief counsel Preet Bharara and Specter chief crime and oversight counsel Matt Miner have been working in tandem, said attorneys participating in the process.

“Specter and Matt Miner have both felt more like members of the opposition than supporters,” said one attorney involved in the issue. “It looks and feels to us like those guys are locked arm-in-arm.”

But unsurprisingly given his history, Specter has not sided wholly against the Bush administration. Specter has not called on Gonzales to resign outright, as have some of his more conservative GOP colleagues. Specter did predict last week that Gonzales might be forced to leave at the conclusion of the investigation.

The Senator’s real views on Gonzales’ fate were delivered to President Bush in a sealed envelope after Gonzales’ April 19 Senate appearance. In an interview, Specter would not reveal the contents of that letter.

Neither would he confirm last week how he planned to vote on a no-confidence resolution on Gonzales that Democrats intend to bring to the floor this week.

“I haven’t seen it,” he said. “It’s something I’ll take a look at and consider.”

After serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee before Republicans lost the majority in November, Specter is now in the lower-profile role of ranking member.

“I prefer to be the chairman,” Specter stated. But he added: “I understand the rules of the process and I’m supportive of [now Judiciary] Chairman [Patrick] Leahy [D-Vt.].”

But in some ways his new role might produce less pressure on the moderate Republican to push the White House agenda on the Hill. And Democrats have reached out to Specter as their go-to Republican on both immigration reform and the U.S. attorneys scandal.

Schumer has praised Specter’s handling of the Justice Department probe and says he has a “great deal of respect for” the Republican.

“The fact that Sen. Specter has repeatedly voiced his concern about the rule of law being followed in the Justice Department has greatly helped the country,” Schumer said in a statement.

Specter’s independent politics have often caused friction with his more conservative colleagues. But several of them said last week they supported how Specter was handling the Justice Department debacle.

“I don’t have any complaints about Sen. Specter,” said Judiciary panel member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “He’s famous for getting to the truth. That’s his style.”

“At the same time, he hasn’t rushed to say somebody made mistakes,” he added.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who has been more supportive of Gonzales, said he was not unhappy with Specter’s aggressive role in the U.S. attorneys matter.

“He’s clearly carved out a niche as an independent Senator, and that both delights and aggravates people — not necessarily at the same time,” Cornyn commented.

“Sen. Specter is one of the brightest members of the U.S. Senate. He’s an outstanding lawyer and he is fiercely independent,” Cornyn added. “I respect all those traits.”

Specter said he has not felt any pressure from the White House or his GOP colleagues to back down from his pursuit of wrongdoing at Justice.

“I believe that the Justice Department is neither Democrat or Republican. I believe that law enforcement is not a partisan matter,” he said.

“The thing that concerns me most is that the department’s dysfunctional.”

Specter has tried to broker a compromise that would allow presidential adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to testify before Congress.

In talks with current White House counsel Fred Fielding — most recently two weeks ago — Specter has proposed allowing the aides to testify without an oath but requiring them to do so with a transcript. Democrats have piled onto the proposal, but it seems to be going nowhere as of now.

“I haven’t gotten a response yet,” Specter said.