Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said today he "doesn't expect" to become ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, likely clearing the way for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to assume the position vacated by Arlen Specter.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley renews complaints about History Channel Republicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller The Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos MORE (R-Iowa) can claim the position if he wants it, but many think it'd be unlikely for him to give up his RM post on Finance. (GOP rules prevent him from holding both spots.)

Hatch is term-limited out of becoming ranking member again, but he could ask the GOP conference to waive the rules. The Utah Republican leaned away from this possibility today.

"Oh, I don't expect that to happen," he told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. "There are some very qualified people who, under the rules, would qualify for this position."

The news of Justice Souter's intent to resign makes the post infinitely more important than it was 24 hours ago.

Reid reports that Senate insiders are leaning toward Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who's actually the fourth most senior member behind Grassley, Hatch, and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who would have to give up his position as Minority Whip to take the Ranking Member post.
Republican members of the Judiciary panel will meet next week to pick a new ranking member from amongst themselves. Senate aides say Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the fourth-ranking member on the panel, has the inside edge.

Recognizing their deficit in the Senate, Sekulow and other conservative operatives said Sessions could be counted on at least to question the eventual nominee closely, as President Bush's two nominees -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito -- underwent during their confirmation hearings.

Moreover, conservatives shudder at the notion of Grassley leading the panel. Writing on The Corner, Ed Whelan, a former Judiciary Committee Counsel and now the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, argued that Grassley wouldn't be the best pick.

"[H]e has never demonstrated any real understanding of, or even interest in, the grand debates over the role of the Courts," Whelan wrote. "And he is not the most effective questioner on legal issues."

Whelan told me that Republicans need a sharp questioner to counter Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), not a policy wonk like Grassley.

"Given how tough Leahy can be, you need to have someone who's smart and savvy, knows constitutional law and presents well," he said. "If you don't have that, and if you have someone who has a very different skill set that sen Grassley has, it'd be very messy."