In defense of Sen. Specter

Most conservatives find my old friend, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), infuriating. They had worked their hearts out for his primary opponent, Rep. Pat Toomey, earlier this year, and when Specter was reelected to fifth term Nov. 2, they began demanding that his colleagues deny him the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 109th Congress.Most conservatives find my old friend, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), infuriating. They had worked their hearts out for his primary opponent, Rep. Pat Toomey, earlier this year, and when Specter was reelected to fifth term Nov. 2, they began demanding that his colleagues deny him the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 109th Congress.

When Specter gave a post-election interview that some critics interpreted as a warning to President Bush against sending pro-life judicial nominees to a Specter-chaired Judiciary Committee, they thought they had the smoking gun they needed to get him. Since then, callers demanding Specter’s scalp have laid siege to his colleagues’ offices and Specter was forced to seek a meeting this week with Republican senators who are concerned both about what he said and the campaign against him.

While it is true that Specter is far more liberal than either Bush or most of his fellow Republican senators, the man is no fool. Perhaps that’s why Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, among others, took the time to look at what he actually said.

I did the same because I couldn’t see any reason why Specter would jeopardize his chance of chairing the Judiciary Committee by threatening a president who went out of his way to help him when he needed it. It just didn’t make any sense.

What we all found, of course, is that those so ready to believe the worst read things into the interview that weren’t there. Specter neither threatened the president nor said he wouldn’t support his nominees.

Such is the hostility to Specter among many of my conservative friends, however, that instead of re-examining what he said for themselves, they began attacking the credentials, judgment and integrity of any conservative who failed to share their outrage. Some even wondered publicly who “got to” Limbaugh and what is “wrong with” Robertson.

So the campaign continues. The problem his enemies must confront, however, is that while Senate Republicans could theoretically roll over and deny Specter his chairmanship, seniority means a lot to them and they aren’t likely to do so without a far better reason than they now have.

There are three possible scenarios to overcome this problem. The first is that Specter’s critics could come up with a stronger case against him, which seems unlikely to happen given his actual words, his defense of what he said and his record of support for the president’s nominees.

The second, already rejected, would have required them to persuade Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is senior to Specter on Judiciary, to give up the chairmanship of the Finance Committee and claim the Judiciary chairmanship instead.

The third scenario would be to persuade Senate Republicans to grant a waiver to Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch, the retiring Judiciary Committee chairman, so that he could continue as chairman. That, however, would set another unattractive precedent and seems unlikely.

Specter has supported and voted for every one of the president’s judicial nominees, both in committee and on the floor. What’s more, he led the fight for several nominees with whom he disagrees on the abortion question, and he introduced the resolution last year to impose a protocol requiring the committee to take quick action and guarantee a floor vote for those hung up in committee.

Specter is pro-abortion, but not reflexively so. He opposes partial-birth abortion and has shepherded several pro-life nominees through the committee. Indeed, the record he has compiled since Bush took office is one of a team player who has supported every one of the president’s nominees and led the fight to force them through the Judiciary Committee for a vote on the Senate floor.

This record and an appreciation of the value of his commitment led Karl Rove to suggest that the important thing is that Specter has said over and over again that he will fight to get the president’s nominees confirmed regardless of whether he agrees with them on abortion. Rove said simply that “Senator Specter is a man of his word, and we’ll take him at his word.”

Rove is right. I’ve known Specter for more than 20 years. I’ve fought against him on some issues and stood with him on others, but I’ve always found that I could rely on his word, which is, frankly, more than can be said of many politicians.

I’ve also found that if you’ve got him on your side, you have a real ally, and that means the president’s chances of getting the judges he wants will be enhanced rather than hurt with Specter at the helm of the Judiciary Committee.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).