Polarized Panel Awaits High Court Nominee

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) will chair hearings on a Supreme Court nominee.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) will chair hearings on a Supreme Court nominee. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Charles Babington and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 10, 2005

The upcoming first-in-a-decade hearings on a Supreme Court nominee will play out before a Senate committee known for partisan clashes and featuring some of Congress's most legendary liberals and ardent conservatives.

Over four days of televised hearings later this summer, the Senate Judiciary Committee will dig for information and frame the debate that will largely determine whether the full Senate embraces President Bush's nominee or splits down the middle, possibly embarking on a filibuster.

Republicans, as the majority party, hold clear advantages. They have 10 committee members, including the chairman, to the Democrats' eight; a larger staff; and 55 of the full Senate's 100 seats. But Democrats have an edge that may loom large in the highly visible, keenly politicized struggle: Their committee members are considerably more experienced and unified than the Republicans. All but two have participated in Supreme Court confirmations, and those two -- Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) -- are glib, media-savvy lawyers.

By contrast, only three of the 10 Republicans have handled a Supreme Court nomination. Party veterans who oversaw past Supreme Court confirmations, such as Strom Thurmond (S.C.) and Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.), have been replaced by greener members.

"The gravitas gap will be an issue if Democrats decide to go to the mat about somebody," said Howard M. Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University in Miami. "The experience that senators have on the Democratic side . . . could affect the tone of the hearings -- respectful, but tough, inquisitorial."

The Republican members constitute an unwieldy mix of ardent abortion foes, consensus-seeking mavericks and mainstream party loyalists. And they are led by one of the most controversial Republicans, the 75-year-old chairman, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Reviled by some conservatives for his centrist views and support for abortion rights -- and admired by many moderates for his sharp mind and independent spirit -- Specter vows to keep the hearings dignified, focused and as bipartisan as possible. "All nominees will be given a full chance to answer," he said. "This is not a courtroom."

Some analysts view the committee's makeup and personalities as a potential recipe for discord, not only between the two parties but also perhaps within the GOP ranks. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) strenuously differ with Specter on abortion -- certain to be a prime issue during the hearings. And the president's allies make no secret they would prefer the gavel to be back in the hands of Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the panel's most senior Republican and a steadfast Bush loyalist. Party term-limit rules forced him to step aside just before the high court vacancy occurred.

Specter, undeterred, said he does not see himself as an arm of the White House nomination machinery but as part of a separate branch of government charged with carrying out a dignified but objective hearing. "They can do their spinning," he said in an interview last week.

His battle with Hodgkin's disease, which has involved chemotherapy that has left him gaunt and temporarily bald, will not slow him down, he added. "I've looked cancer in the face," he said. "I don't feel great when I get up in the morning. But I'm ready."

As for his hair, he has been told it will grow back within six months -- "even thicker!" he said with a droll laugh.

Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement sent committee members and their staffs into a rare summer overdrive. Specter's hearing preparations are being headed by Michael E. O'Neill, an associate professor at George Mason University School of Law, who took a leave of absence to be chief counsel to the Judiciary Committee. O'Neill has read every word of the past 11 hearings in preparation.

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