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Specter Unbound

By Ruth Marcus
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page A21

President Bush would be wise to "pick up the phone" and consult with Democrats before choosing a new Supreme Court justice. "The advice clause in the Constitution has been largely ignored." If there is a vacancy on the high court, "the far right is going to come hard at a nominee if it is not a nominee of their choosing. But I think there's a much broader base in America than the far right." Changing the Senate rules to prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees -- the "nuclear option" -- could have deleterious short-term effects and run the long-term risk of eroding the rights of the minority. "If we go to the nuclear option . . . the Senate will be in turmoil and the Judiciary Committee will be hell."

What is surprising about these comments is not so much the substance as the speaker: the new Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter. If you thought that his brush with losing the committee chairmanship had chastened the legendarily contrarian Specter, if you thought his recent diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease might have tempered his approach -- well, that wasn't the Specter on display in a visit with The Post editorial board yesterday. Instead, the discussion featured Specter Unbound: the Specter who voted against Robert H. Bork rather than the one who rallied to the defense of Clarence Thomas.

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Specter had some cautionary words for Democrats as well -- chiding them for opposing qualified nominees such as Miguel Estrada, urging them to allow votes and avoid an ugly showdown, and placing blame -- properly so -- on both sides for inflaming and escalating the judicial nomination wars. For two decades, he said, Democrats and Republicans have been blocking the other side's judges, using increasingly unappetizing tactics. "Now," he said, "it's a situation where nobody wants to back down." Still, he reserved his toughest words for the extremists of his own party, pressed for accommodations from his own side and made clear that his cooperation with the administration would have its limits. All he had promised the president, Specter said, was a "prompt airing" for his nominees and a vote out of committee. "Those are the extent of my commitments," he said flatly.

This may be the Specter conservatives feared -- but it also seems like the chairman the committee (and the country) needs. The 75-year-old former district attorney -- as he is so fond of reminding listeners -- can be demanding and prickly: His aides are so well-trained that they not only arrive with notepad, water and coffee in tow but take care to break open the little plastic tab on the coffee cup so the senator doesn't have to be bothered. Specter is proud of the new traffic light setup he's installed in the committee hearing room to regulate speaking times, but some of his colleagues are none too pleased with what's likely to be a quixotic effort to keep their verbosity in check. But he is also smart and serious and -- most of all -- independent-minded at a time when there is all too little thinking that deviates from the party line on either side of the aisle.

Of course, it's just that attitude that almost cost Specter the chairmanship in November. His post-election comments that a Supreme Court nominee who opposed abortion rights was not likely to win Senate confirmation was reported as a warning to the president, and the groups that had hoped to unseat the moderate Specter in favor of a more conservative Republican then mobilized in an effort to deny him the chairmanship. Or, as Specter not so diplomatically put it, "the far right was ready to pounce on me if I'd done nothing but said the Lord's Prayer, and that was a crevice and they went after it."

His grasp on a job that he had wanted for years was shaky enough that Specter seemed, at the time, to be engaging in the senatorial equivalent of writing 100 times on the blackboard: "I will not block the president's nominees. I will not block the president's nominees." He finally secured the support of his colleagues with a written statement that cited "election results demonstrating voter dissatisfaction with Democratic filibusters," and noted, "If a rule change is necessary to avoid filibusters, there are relevant recent precedents to secure rule changes with 51 votes."

But yesterday, though he said he had not yet taken a position on the nuclear option, Specter made clear his serious reservations about infringing on the traditional rights of the minority. "Once you plant the seed, that has enormous flourishing power in the Congress," he said. And when asked whether filibustering a nominee is ever justifiable, Specter paused for several seconds before delivering a lengthy answer that boiled down to yes: "It ought to be reserved for a truly extraordinary case and not to make it an everyday practice as the Democrats have."

Specter inherits a situation that makes achieving peace in the Middle East look easy: a president allergic to consultation, Republican activists determined to exercise their power to the maximum, and Democrats so angry and unwilling to back down that they would rather risk all than lose face. In light of this, Specter's dogged hopefulness is impressive. As the senator put it, "There are some bridges out there if you dig deep enough, pardon the mixed metaphor."

marcusr@washpost.com


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