On an otherwise quiet day on the Hill, 100 journalists and jostling photographers jammed the Senate TV studio yesterday for a sighting of that most exotic and endangered of species: a moderate in the United States Senate.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) seemed amused that he was the object of so much attention. "Must be a slow day in Washington," he said during a burst of camera clicks. But as a prominent Republican senator taking on his president, his party leaders and conservative interest groups -- as Specter did in a meeting Wednesday with Washington Post editorialists -- Specter could not have been surprised.
The senator did not backpedal during his lengthy news conference about the standoff over Bush's judicial nominees. "Both parties are at fault," he said, even scolding Bush for "unheard-of" recess appointments of judges rejected by the Senate. "Each side ratcheted it up, ratcheted it up. . . . So the question is, where do we go from here?"
The answer came swiftly: Nowhere.
Minutes after Specter's remarks, Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, arrived in the same room to offer his response. Asked if he, like Specter, would give his own party some of the blame for the standoff, Schumer demurred.
"I really have to say I think we have been judicious in terms of blocking judges," he said. "I don't think we're being unfair, I really don't." Schumer repaid Specter's candor with a stunt: a letter, released to reporters before Specter was told of it, pressuring the chairman to secure a meeting with Bush.
Republicans on the committee, in turn, were unmoved by Specter's warning that efforts to end Democrats' power to filibuster nominees would cause "bedlam" in the Senate and "hell" in the committee. "Having some disruption for days or even weeks is not a horrendous situation," said John Hart, a spokesman for freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla).
The White House, meanwhile, replied that its recess appointments are perfectly legitimate and that it already consults with the Senate enough.
Specter is a determined man. In recent years, the 75-year-old senator has survived a brain tumor, double-bypass surgery and, last year, a bitter primary fight for his seat. Now he is battling Hodgkins disease and the effects of chemotherapy.
Fortunately for Specter, doctors give him a 70 percent chance of beating his illness. Unfortunately for the Senate, his chance of avoiding a meltdown over judicial appointments is significantly lower.
Specter had to grovel to his Republican colleagues to keep his claim on the chairmanship after conservative groups demanded he be dumped. Specter retreated from a warning to Bush about antiabortion judges, and he vowed not to block Bush nominees.
But there was no trace of the groveling yesterday. He said Bush should emulate an effort by Bill Clinton to compromise on judicial nominees, and he said Bush should balance "bring[ing] the country together" against "certain segments of the Republican Party" who disagree. "The Constitution does say that there should be advice from the Senate," he said.
And Specter questioned the effort to strip the minority Democrats of filibuster power -- a move known as the "nuclear option."
"If you were to flash ahead a hundred years from now, this controversy over judges . . . would not be a major matter in the life of the country," he said. "But minority rights are."