Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who expects to head the Judiciary Committee next year, moved yesterday to quell an uproar over comments that were widely interpreted as warning President Bush against choosing Supreme Court nominees who oppose abortion rights.
"Contrary to press accounts, I did not warn the president about anything" and would "never apply any litmus test" on abortion, Specter said in a statement. "I expect to support his nominees," Specter said later in a telephone interview.
The controversy, which could put Specter's accession to chairman in jeopardy, came as senators and their strategists began to pick their way through the post-election landscape, which appeared to strengthen Bush's hand on judicial nominations, although not without complications.
Republicans figured their four-seat Senate gain will help win support for Bush's nominees among Democrats worried about whether their party was hurt by charges of "obstructionism," an element in the defeat of Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in Tuesday's voting.
But key Democrats vowed to continue opposing nominees they regard as extreme, employing filibusters if necessary, as they did over the past two years to block 10 of Bush's appeals court choices. Republicans will have 55 seats in the Senate next year, five short of the 60 needed to cut off stalling tactics.
Adding to the political tensions are Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's recent diagnosis of thyroid cancer and expectations that a nomination for the high court will occur sooner rather than later.
After a Philadelphia news conference Wednesday, after he was elected to a fifth Senate term, it seemed that Specter, who generally supports abortion rights, might also pose a complication. News reports said he warned Bush against nominating anyone for the Supreme Court who would overturn a woman's right to abortion and suggested he would oppose such a nominee. Specter was quoted as saying, "When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose . . . I think that is unlikely."
The news accounts prompted a flood of complaints to senators' offices.
In his statement yesterday, Specter said he had supported all of Bush's nominees and added, "I have never and would never apply any litmus test on the abortion issue."
It was unclear whether Specter had staved off a challenge to his chairmanship. Although he is in line by seniority to succeed Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who is term-limited as Judiciary Committee chairman, Specter could be rejected either by a majority of committee Republicans or the full 55-member Senate Republican Conference.
A senior Senate GOP aide said Specter has "created an extremely stormy path for himself," and that it was "too early to say" whether his chairmanship was in jeopardy. Others said they expected the storm to blow over.
Concerned Women for America, a conservative group, issued a statement saying Specter had disqualified himself from the chairmanship and stuck by that statement even after Specter issued his clarification. "He's a desperate man trying to pull himself out of a hole he dug himself into," said Jan LaRue, the group's chief counsel.
The Bush administration began planning for a possible Supreme Court nomination in January 2001, with aides preparing a list of 10 to 20 possible candidates and vetting each, according to former officials who were involved. But those files stayed on the shelf as the court's membership remained unchanged as it had since 1994. Rehnquist's cancer diagnosis has undoubtedly caused the administration to step up its planning.
No one is predicting that there will be anything but a serious fight over any nomination to the court. Conservative interest groups showed by their reaction to Specter's remarks that they expect a nominee to their liking; liberal interest groups are expected to pressure Democrats to oppose anyone Bush picks.
"I think any expectation that the interest groups will lay down against the president's nominee is misplaced," said Viet D. Dinh, a former Justice Department official who worked on judicial nominations.
But Dinh noted that Senate Democrats would face a difficult choice if their only way to stop a Bush nominee were to launch a filibuster, which has rarely been used against Supreme Court nominees. "The Democrats will have to decide on the meaning of the defeat of Tom Daschle, whether it is about obstructionism or just a midcourse correction," Dinh said.
The list of probable nominees remains much as it has always been. At or close to the top is White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, 49, who is trusted by the president and who would be the first Hispanic nominated to the court.
Though Gonzales is still seen as a likely first pick by Republican insiders, his luster has been diminished somewhat by recent controversies over the civil liberties impact of the administration's policies in the war on terrorism. Gonzales is also distrusted by the Republican right, which regards him as less than reliable on such issues as abortion and affirmative action.
Also high on the Bush list are J. Harvie Wilkinson III, 60, a federal appeals court judge in Richmond who is seen as reliably conservative and possessed of the seniority and stature necessary to serve as chief justice, and J. Michael Luttig, 50, who serves on the same court.
Others include appeals court judges Samuel A. Alito Jr., 54; Emilio M. Garza, 57; and California Supreme Court Justice Janice R. Brown, 55.
A popular scenario among court watchers is a double switch, with Bush elevating Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a centrist, to chief justice while nominating a new associate justice.
But a Republican source who asked for anonymity to speak more freely said there is "no chance" of that. Also considered unlikely, said Republicans familiar with administration thinking, is any promotion of Justices Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia to chief justice, notwithstanding their popularity on the right.