Specter Judiciary debut irks some conservatives

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter’s early statements on how to deal with President Bush’s judicial nominees have already upset conservatives who tried to prevent him from winning the chairmanship. Specter (R-Pa.), who has begun chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s disease, gave a press conference last week in which he demonstrated both his physical stamina and his determination to set his own course on the committee. In particular, Specter emphasized his intention to try to negotiate the judicial standoff through meetings with committee Democrats.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter’s early statements on how to deal with President Bush’s judicial nominees have already upset conservatives who tried to prevent him from winning the chairmanship.

Specter (R-Pa.), who has begun chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s disease, gave a press conference last week in which he demonstrated both his physical stamina and his determination to set his own course on the committee. In particular, Specter emphasized his intention to try to negotiate the judicial standoff through meetings with committee Democrats.

He also made a series of pragmatic statements that some conservatives view as needlessly caving in to Senate Democratic opposition by warning that GOP efforts to break a Democratic filibuster could turn the Judiciary Committee into “hell.”

“The olive branch that he keeps wanting to offer to the leftists on the committee is going to end up in a wood chipper, given some of the statements that are coming from the opposition,” said Kay Daly, president of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary.

Also drawing criticism are statements Specter made about the so-called “nuclear option” — which supporters call the constitutional option — to use parliamentary tactics to break a Democratic filibuster of judicial nominees. “Whatever promise he has made to the leadership, I gather, is now null and void,” Daly said.

“There’s a lot of nervousness among conservative groups, though, about whether Specter will really behave himself,” said Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund. “This is going to be a continuing problem for Republicans — as these judicial fights really heat up, it may be that Republicans rue the day that they made Specter chairman.”

In his press conference, Specter said, “I sense there is an interest on both sides of the aisle in trying to work out this issue.” He also acknowledged that Republicans “slow-walked” some of President Clinton’s nominees, saying, “If you trace it back historically, both parties are at fault.”

Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, said Specter erred by comparing the Democratic filibuster to other GOP tactics, such as recess appointments. “I would deny the moral equivalence,” he said. “This is potentially another example of Republicans bringing a knife to a gunfight.”

Specter announced that the committee today will hold a hearing on William Myers for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, followed by a hearing Thursday for Terrence Boyle for the 4th Circuit. Some conservatives consider further hearings on such nominees as Myers, who already had a hearing in the last Congress, to be an unnecessary delay.

One strategist said Specter was “at odds” with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on the order in which the committee, and possibly the Senate, would take up nominees. “If you put out the ‘wrong’ nominee first — one where the Democrats are more comfortable compromising — and they do get a vote and confirm, that would take some of the energy out of the filibuster-reform movement,” the strategist said.

On the nuclear option — a top concern among conservatives who tried to prevent Specter from winning the Judiciary gavel — Specter appeared to support Democratic claims that it could be severely damaging to the Senate, potentially threatening to stall President Bush’s legislative agenda.

“If we have a nuclear option, the Senate will be in turmoil,” he said, “and the Judiciary Committee will be hell. We can take an extended foreign trip, all of us.” Specter later added that it “only takes one senator to throw a monkey wrench into the entire Senate.”

“The majority leader believes he has 51 votes for passing the constitutional option,” the strategist said, “and he probably does, under the right circumstances.”

Specter also urged Bush to consult with senators on any Supreme Court nomination he might make, including consulting with the Democratic minority. He cited conversations that took place between Clinton and former Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) as a model.

“You need to bring the country together on this nomination if you possibly can,” Specter said. “The president has his prerogative, and you have certain segments of the Republican Party having been instrumental in his victory and having a claim to a voice, and he has to balance all these factors.”

“A tiger doesn’t change its stripes,” Moore said, “especially after it has had those stripes for 25 years.”

Perhaps tellingly, two senators released statements after Specter’s press conference: ranking Judiciary member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who praised some statements that Specter made and wished him a speedy recovery, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). No Republican issued a release.

Specter also indicated that he agrees with Schumer’s position on an abortion issue that has been entangled in bankruptcy legislation, although he also said the issue — relating to clinic bombers’ ability to declare bankruptcy to avoid court fines — may not need to be dealt with on that bill. Schumer, meanwhile, has indicated that he plans to oppose the Myers nomination.

If Specter follows a course of accommodation with Democrats on the committee, it remains to be seen whether conservatives will be willing to take action against him, given his health problems. Daly noted that everyone wishes Specter a speedy recovery. “That being said, it does not preclude, nor does it excuse, the damage that could be done to the Constitution or the federal judiciary.”