You'd think Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has enough going on with upcoming Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Now comes word that he's been busy trying to wangle face time with Fidel Castro.
Specter's spokesman, William H. Reynolds, confirms that Specter was in Havana on Sunday in hopes of meeting with the aging Cuban dictator -- although it was a bit uncertain whether he succeeded. The excursion to the Cuban capital was a side trip on a visit to the region that also took him to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, where suspected terrorists are held. He returned to Havana on Monday night and yesterday was in Venezuela, home to another American nemesis, President Hugo Chavez.
Reynolds said Specter met two or three times in the past with Castro; the senator and the international pariah talked previously about drug interdiction. "I don't know the specifics of why he went down this time," Reynolds said. But he said he is certain that the senator was not seeking Castro's views on Supreme Court nominee John H. Roberts Jr.
Reynolds at first said Specter "met with Castro." In a subsequent conversation, Reynolds hedged that, saying that there was "an attempt to try to get them together" Monday but that he could not confirm whether a meeting had actually occurred.
Travel to Cuba is restricted for ordinary Americans, but Specter is no ordinary American. Specter, Reynolds said, informed both the State Department and the Pentagon about his itinerary.
Targeting 'Crossover' Senators
An increasingly rare species of senator may become even more endangered in next year's elections.
Both major parties are gunning for the dwindling number of lawmakers who represent states that backed one party in a Senate race and the other party in the presidential race.
For instance, Republicans see ripe targets in Democratic senators running for reelection in states that voted for President Bush in 2004. The list includes Sens. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Democrats have put near the top of their list Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), both of whom represent states won by Democratic nominee John F. Kerry.
Such crossover voting often suggests that a senator has gotten ideologically out of step with his state and is vulnerable to an effective challenger. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has already begun running television ads in West Virginia, which Bush won by 13 points, accusing Byrd of being too liberal for the state.
The 2004 elections winnowed the number of senators from such crossover states to 25, with 16 Democrats representing red states and nine Republicans representing blue ones. That is fewer than half as many as there were in the early 1990s and the fewest in at least a quarter-century. Some analysts say this has changed the character of what senators sometimes call "the world's greatest deliberative body" -- making it less deliberative and more argumentative.
"It's probably the largest contributor to the shrinking center in the Senate," said Jennifer E. Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's something that we've seen happen in the House over the past decade. The same sort of thing is happening in the Senate."
Everyone suspects lobbyists are really behind those "Dear Colleague" letters that members of Congress send to each other urging congressional action of one type or another. Now we have proof.
Jason Steinbaum, chief of staff for Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter Monday, in which he asked lawmakers to sign on to a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her not to provide arms to the Palestinian Authority. But, according to the electronic properties of the attached Microsoft Word document, the author was Ester Kurz, legislative strategy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the a pro-Israel lobby.
Steinbaum said that he was, in fact, the author of the document but that Kurz made "a couple of changes." A case of cut-and-paste gone awry?