Several influential conservative Republicans indicated yesterday that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is in line to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year, has not succeeded in tamping down the furor he created last week when he appeared to warn President Bush not to select Supreme Court nominees who oppose abortion rights.
Senator-elect John Thune (R-S.D.), who defeated Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D) in a race that turned in part on stalled judicial nominations, said newly elected members of the GOP's 55-member majority will raise questions with Senate leaders this week about Specter's elevation.
Thune said he was "troubled" by Specter's statements and vowed "there will be some questions asked by those of us who are coming in as freshmen who ran our campaigns built around that very central theme that we need to have good judges on the bench." Thune made the comments in an interview on ABC's "This Week."
Specter's comments were also derided by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and, most forcefully, by James Dobson, who has been credited with helping to mobilize the vote for Bush as head of the Christian group Focus on the Family.
Specter "is a problem, and he must be derailed," Dobson said on "This Week." Senate offices were swamped with calls about Specter late last week, and the uproar is "not going to go away," Dobson said. "Republican senators know they've got a problem."
Specter himself spent another day trying to explain that his statements Wednesday were not intended as a "warning" to Bush about judicial nominees. Instead, he told CBS's "Face the Nation," he was merely recognizing "a political fact" that candidates who oppose abortion rights are likely to be defeated because the GOP does not have the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster, despite Republican election gains.
Specter, the only pro-choice Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Friday that that does not mean he would apply an abortion "litmus test" to nominees, and he noted that he supported the nominations of Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, both thought to favor narrowing abortion rights. Rehnquist's recent diagnosis of thyroid cancer has raised expectations that there might be a high court nomination soon, the first of Bush's tenure.
Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser and architect of his election victory, declined to say yesterday whether Specter should chair the Judiciary Committee, calling it an internal Senate matter. But he said the White House was reassured by Specter's most recent comments.
"I saw his later statement where he said he was not applying a litmus test and that he upheld his commitment to the president -- that if he were to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee there would be quick hearings . . . and the appellate nominees would be brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote of the entire Senate," Rove said on NBC's "Meet the Press," adding, "Senator Specter's a man of his word. We'll take him at his word."
Specter's controversial comments came after he narrowly won election to a fifth term, surviving a tough primary challenge with the aid of campaign appearances on his behalf by Bush. After his victory, news reports said he seemed to warn Bush against nominating anyone who would oppose abortion rights.
"When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely," Specter said. "The president is well aware of what happened when a bunch of his nominees were sent up with the filibuster."
Specter is in line to succeed Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), whose term as chairman has expired.