Key Republicans said yesterday they believe that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) will be approved by GOP colleagues as chairman of the Judiciary Committee despite an uproar over his expressed doubts that a Supreme Court nominee who opposes abortion rights could be confirmed by the Senate.
"I expect him to have the support" necessary to win the chairmanship, said the outgoing committee chairman, Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). He was joined by former Senate GOP leader Trent Lott (Miss.) and deputy party whip Robert F. Bennett (Utah) in predicting victory for Specter.
Bennett characterized the controversy as a "tempest in a teapot."
The predictions followed an extraordinary, nearly two-week-long campaign by Specter to firm up his shaky grip on the chairmanship. It culminated yesterday in personal appeals by Specter to GOP leaders and committee colleagues to trust his assurances that he will do all within his power to win speedy approval for President Bush's judicial nominees.
Specter still plans to plead his case before the full Senate GOP caucus today, and will not face an official vote of committee Republicans and the whole caucus until January. Some senators were pushing for a formal statement reflecting Specter's commitments on the handling of judicial nominations. But several senators said Specter had mostly allayed concerns about his performance as Judiciary chairman and is likely to prevail.
Specter's appeals, made in closed-door meetings in the Capitol office of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), came as about a dozen antiabortion conservatives protested outside a Senate office building where Frist has another office.
One protester carried a sign reading "Bork Specter" -- a reference to Robert H. Bork, a hero to conservatives, whose Supreme Court nomination Specter helped kill in 1987. Since then, "bork" has been used as a verb by conservatives to describe a legislative torpedoing operation.
Specter, a political moderate and supporter of abortion rights, set off a furor among conservatives when, at a post-election news conference, he said it would be unlikely for the Senate to confirm a Supreme Court nominee who might reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman's right to an abortion.
Conservative advocacy groups, already angry over Specter's role in defeating Bork and his support for abortion rights, pounced on the comment. They said it cast doubt over how effectively he would champion Bush's judicial nominees.
As the Senate was flooded with thousands of protesting phone calls and e-mails, Specter mounted a strenuous defense, denying he favors an abortion rights "litmus test" for judges and pledging to act swiftly on Bush's nominations. After more than 30 television interviews and numerous phone calls to colleagues, he asked for this week's meetings to address any lingering concerns, which some senators -- including Frist -- said they still had.
Under the Senate's seniority tradition, Specter, a member of the committee for 24 years, is in line to succeed Hatch, who must step down because of the Senate GOP's six-year term limits for committee chairmen. But Specter's elevation to the post can be blocked by a majority of committee Republicans or the full Senate GOP membership, both by secret ballot.
After GOP committee members met for nearly 90 minutes, Hatch said he supports Specter to succeed him. "Nobody in the meeting was against Arlen. . . . Senator Specter handled himself very well. . . . I'm for him, as I should be," Hatch said.
After an earlier meeting of similar length with eight members of the Senate GOP leadership, Specter said that he is "leaving no stone unturned" in his effort to salvage his chairmanship and that he planned a meeting later in the day with antiabortion groups. "Anybody who wants a meeting with me . . . all you have to do is request it," he said.
But Specter stopped short of declaring victory, and Frist did not comment after either meeting.
As he headed for the Republican leadership meeting, Bennett said he supports Specter for the post and believes he will get it.
Lott, who previously endorsed Specter for the job, said he will get it "because he's earned it and he'll be a good chairman." Lott said he told Specter to avoid being too defensive and stress his "experience and tenacity" as assets in the fight over judicial nominations.
Sen. Larry E. Craig (Idaho), a Judiciary Committee member and leading conservative, said he was "working closely" with Specter to resolve the dispute.
A half-dozen or more of Specter's GOP colleagues have publicly endorsed him, including several committee chairmen: Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) of Foreign Relations; John McCain (Ariz.) of Commerce, Science and Transportation; Judd Gregg (N.H.) of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and Susan Collins (Maine) of Governmental Affairs.
No senator has publicly called for rejecting Specter as chairman, but some have expressed reservations and most have kept their opinions to themselves.
Sen.-elect David Vitter (R-La.) said he has "concerns" about Specter's comments and noted that he, like most members of the GOP caucus, is more conservative than Specter on issues involving social policy and tort reform.