By Alexander Bolton - 04/07/10 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Arlen Specter says he has an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to become the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee, but three senior Democrats are blocking the deal.
Specter (D-Pa.) has worked diligently behind the scenes to boost his seniority on the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations committees and hopes to settle the issue before the election.
When Specter switched to the Democratic Party almost a year ago, he was given the last seat on the dais of the Judiciary and Appropriations panels.
He has since turned into a model member of the Democratic Conference, voting with party leaders more than 95 percent of the time, and worked to convince his fellow Democrats to support his deal with Reid.
“Sen. Reid and Sen. Leahy worked it out with half a dozen of my colleagues that I would be ahead of them on Judiciary,” Specter said. “On Appropriations, this is something that Reid is working on now. The issue is not over.”
A spokesman for Reid declined to comment.
Last month, seven Democrats on the Judiciary panel let Specter leapfrog them in seniority, including Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Conference, and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Democratic whip.
But three Democrats elected to the Senate after Specter, Sens. Herb Kohl (Wis.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), have balked at letting him cut ahead of them in line for the gavel.
“You don’t come this far to watch people on the other team cut in front of you,” said a Democratic aide, noting that Specter served nearly 29 years in the upper chamber as a Republican.
Another Democratic staffer said the agreement to allow Specter to jump ahead of Schumer, Durbin and other Democrats was in effect “only for this Congress.”
Specter is still ranked as the most junior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, according to the panel’s website. He is also listed as the lowest-ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Democrats on Appropriations have been less amenable to letting Specter jump ahead of them. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) publicly criticized Reid’s agreement when it was announced last year.
Since then, Reid has been reluctant to discuss Specter’s seniority in public.
Democratic lawmakers note that no agreement is final unless ratified by the entire Senate Democratic Conference.
But the support of seven Democrats on the Judiciary Committee plus the backing of Leahy and Reid means that Specter could have a strong chance of winning broader conference approval.
If Specter were to take over the gavel of the Judiciary panel, he would be in charge of confirming President Barack Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court.
Specter played a significant role in shepherding conservative Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito through the Senate when he served as Republican Judiciary chairman from 2005 to 2007.
Some liberals haven’t forgiven him for his aggressive cross-examination of Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearing. Specter later expressed regret for his rough treatment of Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas.
However, Specter sided with Democrats in a high-profile Supreme Court battle several years earlier when he voted against the nomination of Robert Bork.
Specter wouldn’t have a shot at the gavel until Leahy, who was elected in 1974, left to become chairman of Appropriations, where he ranks behind Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Inouye, 85, is running for reelection this year and appears to be in good health. But in the Senate, circumstances can change very quickly and the senior Democrats on Judiciary want to preserve their chances of taking over the powerful panel.
Specter acknowledged that Reid “had some pushback from the caucus” but said he would not let the issue drop, indicating he may ask the Democratic Conference to vote on the issue before the election.
“I’ll bring it back to the caucus at the right time,” he said. “ “It may be appropriate to bring it back sooner” than Election Day.
Specter may hope to press the issue sooner instead of later, because there’s a chance that Reid could lose reelection. Without Reid’s backing, Specter’s case to preserve his seniority would weaken significantly.
Specter’s reelection chances would be helped if he could argue to voters that he would be able to use the seniority accrued as a Republican to help Pennsylvania.
A new poll by Public Policy Polling (D) shows Specter trailing Republican candidate Pat Toomey by three percentage points, 46-43. The same survey showed Specter, who faces a primary challenge against Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), with a 34 percent approval rating.
Specter has a close working relationship with Leahy, but he has clashed at times with other Democrats on Judiciary.
The Associated Press reported on a shouting match between Specter and Feingold in 2006 after the panel approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
“I don’t need to be lectured by you. You are no more a protector of the Constitution than I am,” Specter shouted after Feingold threatened to storm out of a meeting. “If you want to leave, good riddance.”
Feingold shot back: “I’ve enjoyed your lecture, too, Mr. Chairman. See ya!”