Sen. Specter says he'll be team player on torts

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the embattled heir to the Senate Judiciary Committee gavel, is assuring panel members who will vote soon on his ascension that he will not stand in the way of tort reform, one of President Bush’s highest priorities.

During a private meeting of the Senate Republican Conference yesterday, Specter, one of the chamber’s few centrist Republicans, also pledged not to obstruct legislation he opposes.
Pedro Sa da Bandeira
Sen. Arlen Specter has been battling challenges to his ascension as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Conservative Republicans particularly fear that Specter may block efforts to curb lawsuits. Their concerns about the fate of tort reform in a Judiciary Committee controlled by Specter have been eclipsed by the uproar over his suggestion that judicial nominees who oppose abortion rights would probably not be confirmed.

Social conservatives have been much more vocal than tort reformers. Specter’s opposition to conservative judicial nominees such as Robert Bork and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — a onetime judicial nominee — is much better-known than his opposition to aspects of tort reform.

In an attempt to deflect criticism, Specter is also staying close to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the Senate’s leading conservative, even though Santorum has been careful not to intervene on Specter’s behalf over the Judiciary chair.

Several members of the committee said they have discussed the issue of tort reform.
Most declined to discuss details, but Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said Specter is making assurances on tort reform.

“He said he would support the workings of the committee, that he would not use the committee or his role as chairman as an obstructionist,” Craig said, adding, “I laid out an agenda of items [including tort reform] that I think are important to the Congress that he’s made no objection to.”

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he also discussed tort reform with Specter.

Specter refused to say what he told his Judiciary colleagues.

He was introduced at the closed-door gathering by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the committee’s current chairman, who expressed support for Specter, according to a senator who was there.

Specter discussed his meetings the day before with the Senate leadership and members of Judiciary and described both as supportive.

“He indicated that he has no litmus test with regard to judges,” the lawmaker said. “He has views with regard to legislation — his record would indicate that — but not a bias to prevent legislation going through his committee.”

In addition to making these pledges, Specter has depicted Santorum as a committed ally, telling The Washington Times yesterday that his “No. 1 priority in the next two years is to reelect Senator Santorum.”

Santorum did not attend Specter’s Tuesday meeting with the Senate leadership.

While most attention has focused on Specter’s comments about judicial nominees, his position on tort reform and other issues also concerns Republican leaders. In the past election cycle, he accepted more than three times as much money in political contributions from lawyers and law firms than from any other industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Specter’s son is a prominent Philadelphia-based trial lawyer. That has raised the suspicions of several tort-reform proponents, who said momentum on the issue could be hampered if Specter presided over the committee of primary jurisdiction.

Specter alienated himself from tort reformers by supporting “poison pill” amendments to asbestos and class-action legislation this Congress. He also supported increasing the amount that business had to pay to a restitution fund for asbestos victims and a provision that would scrap the settlement if payments to the fund were not complete in any year.

“He voted with Democrats to increase the overall exposure of the business community on the price of the fund and on the sunset,” a GOP lobbyist said.

Charles Robbins, Specter’s spokesman, retorted, “On asbestos, Senator Specter worked longer and harder than anyone to get the parties involved together, and for those efforts he was recognized by the Chamber of Commerce.”

On class action, Specter supported a loophole that would have exempted from class-action tort reform states that allowed for “mass action,” a variation of class-action suits.

“He was a royal pain, and we had to do a whole lot of work to get compromise that was much softer than people in the Senate and the House wanted,” one GOP Senate aide-turned lobbyist said.

Robbins hit back: “The record is that Senator Specter supported the class-action bill in committee and [on the] floor repeatedly.”

“What you’re talking about there is a minor exception,” Robbins added.

Sessions, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that those two bills would be high priorities in the next Congress. “I would hope [Specter] would be supportive,” he said.

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