Senate Republican leaders yesterday appointed two of Congress's most outspoken antiabortion members to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is bracing for potentially bruising hearings on nominations to the Supreme Court.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen.-elect Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) will join the panel's eight returning Republicans next month, assuming the Republican Conference follows tradition and approves the leadership's committee assignments for all 55 GOP senators. The breakdown of Judiciary will be 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.
With Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, fighting cancer, and three other justices in their seventies or eighties, many lawmakers expect that President Bush will fill the Supreme Court's first vacancies in more than a decade. Battles over judicial nominations, which are subject to Senate approval, begin in Judiciary. The panel holds hearings and votes on whether to recommend confirmation by the full chamber.
Abortion is certain to be a focus of debate for any nominee to the high court, which for three decades has upheld the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide. While Coburn and Brownback will be the committee's newest Republicans, their records suggest they may rank among the most outspoken on abortion.
Coburn, an obstetrician, has advocated the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. Last year, Brownback introduced the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which would have required a woman seeking an abortion to be told that the fetus might feel pain and that it could be given an anesthetic.
Antiabortion groups hailed yesterday's appointments, while advocates of keeping abortion legal expressed dismay. "The color code for potential threats to the Constitution just went from orange to red," said Ralph G. Neas of People for the American Way. "It's hard to believe the Judiciary Committee could go any farther to the right, but it just did."
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said: "It appears the far right is massing troops on the border of Roe v. Wade."
Conservative groups see it differently. "I'm very pleased with it, obviously," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. "Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn are friends of ours."
The Judiciary Committee occasionally holds fiercely contested hearings, such as the 1991 showdown between Clarence Thomas and lawyer Anita Hill, who accused him of sexual harassment. Thomas was confirmed for the Supreme Court.
The committee's new chairman, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), angered some fellow Republicans last month when he suggested Bush might have difficulty winning confirmation of judges who oppose abortion rights. Specter kept his post by pledging to move promptly to send Bush's nominations to the Senate floor.
"I'm sure Senators Brownback and Coburn will ably assist Chairman Specter in that task," Sekulow said yesterday.
Brownback and Coburn replace Sens. Larry E. Craig (Idaho) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), who will shift to other committees. Craig and Chambliss are solid conservatives but are not as focused on abortion as their replacements are. Democrats, who lost four net Senate seats last month, will not replace the retiring Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) on the committee. Their eight remaining members will stay on the panel.
In other Republican assignments announced yesterday, Chambliss will chair the Agriculture Committee, Thad Cochran (Miss.) will chair Appropriations and Pat Roberts (Kan.) will remain as head of the intelligence committee. Ted Stevens (Alaska) will chair the Commerce Committee, and John McCain (Ariz.) will chair Indian Affairs. The changes generally were prompted by the GOP's self-imposed term limits for chairmen.