After winning a bruising battle for a fifth term, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is struggling to keep the fruits of victory with the same aggressiveness, agility and finely honed survival skills that have marked most of his idiosyncratic 24-year career on Capitol Hill.
He is in line to achieve his long-sought goal of chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee but could be denied the post by fellow Republicans as a result of a furious backlash among conservatives about his post-election comments suggesting the Senate is likely to reject staunchly antiabortion nominees to the Supreme Court.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) caused a backlash among conservatives after he suggested that it is unlikely the Senate would confirm a Supreme Court nominee who would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
(H. Rumph Jr. -- AP)
Many major conservative groups -- including the Family Research Council, Traditional Values Coalition and Concerned Women for America -- have called for Specter's rejection, with some of them bitterly recalling that Specter joined with Democrats in blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork, a conservative hero, in 1987.
"The problem with Senator Specter is not merely his warning to President Bush on judicial nominees," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, "but a political career full of positions more suitable for the likes of John Kerry or Ted Kennedy than a Republican senator from Pennsylvania."
The campaign against Specter represents an effort by conservatives to lay down their markers in the coming battles over Bush's anticipated Supreme Court nominations. The stakes are high because the chairman wields considerable power within a committee that may consider as many as four nominations to the court during Bush's second term. Christian antiabortion groups are planning a "pray-in" on Capitol Hill tomorrow to try to block Specter.
With phone calls, television appearances and sit-down chats, Specter is working hard to convince skeptical colleagues that he will push for swift action on Bush's judicial nominations, regardless of whether they share his views in favor of abortion rights.
Publicly at least, Specter shrugs off his latest challenge, contending that conservative groups are gunning for him now after failing to defeat him in a GOP primary earlier this year. "It's an occupational hazard . . . just another bump in the road," he said in an interview last week.
Specter could be blocked by a majority vote of either committee Republicans or the full Senate GOP caucus. The showdown is officially scheduled for early January but could come as soon as this week when Congress returns for a post-election session. Specter appears to have made some headway, but the White House has been tepid in its support of the maverick Republican, and the Senate GOP leadership has not weighed in on his behalf. Specter's fate remains in doubt.
Appearing yesterday on "Fox News Sunday," Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called Specter's comments "disheartening" and said the Pennsylvanian had "not yet" made a persuasive case for the chairmanship. Frist said Specter will meet this week with the Senate GOP leadership as well as Judiciary Committee Republicans but that a final decision will not be made until January.
Frist also said he is determined to stop Democrats from filibustering judicial nominations and again suggested one option would be a majority vote of the Senate to declare such filibusters unconstitutional, an idea that has prompted angry protests from Democrats.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on ABC's "This Week" that he supports Specter and thinks he would become chairman.
Specter, also appearing on ABC, defended his record, reiterating that he never has and never would impose a litmus test on judicial nominees. Asked whether he would support Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas if Bush nominated him as chief justice, Specter declined to answer, saying votes should not be taken through "sound bites on national television."
At 74, Specter is the dean of a vanishing breed in Congress, a Republican moderate and abortion rights advocate in a party dominated by antiabortion conservatives. He frequently finds himself in a pivotal position on close votes, enhancing his power but often irritating colleagues of both parties as he weighs his choices. Just as he enraged conservatives by opposing Bork, he infuriated liberals with his prosecutorial treatment of Anita F. Hill on sexual harassment charges that Hill brought against Thomas during his 1991 confirmation hearings.
A loner with a contrarian streak and a sometimes abrasive manner, Specter is more respected than liked, admired by colleagues for his hard work, keen legal mind and prosecutorial skills developed as a district attorney in Philadelphia. He is an outsider's insider, using his incumbency and committee positions to spread federal dollars through Pennsylvania, earning the gratitude of many voters who do not share his political views. "A lot of people who don't like him say, 'Yeah, he was there when we needed him,' " said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.