WASHINGTON (BP)–Republican pro-choice Sen. Arlen Specter apparently has weathered a storm largely of his own making to gain the prized Judiciary Committee chairmanship.
Although no official vote will take place until Jan. 4, the other nine GOP members of the committee unanimously threw their support behind Specter Nov. 18. On the same day he received his colleagues’ support, Specter said in a written statement he “would not use a litmus test to deny confirmation to pro-life nominees.” He also said he had assured President Bush he “would give his nominees quick committee hearings and early committee votes so floor action could be promptly scheduled.”
The developments followed two weeks of turmoil in reaction to post-election comments by the Pennsylvania senator that were widely interpreted as a warning to President Bush not to send the committee Supreme Court nominees who oppose abortion rights. Until then, it appeared Specter would ascend to the chairmanship next year without a fight. A GOP limit of six years for committee chairmen will force Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah to step down, leaving Specter as next in seniority and the one by Senate tradition to take the post.
After Specter’s Nov. 3 remarks, several pro-life leaders campaigned against his ascension, and pro-life Americans flooded Senate offices with requests for his rejection as chairman.
After the announcement by GOP panel members, some pro-life leaders said they were dissatisfied and would monitor Specter’s actions.
“I’m disappointed that Senator Specter is going to be chairman,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “But I’m not surprised given the ways in which the senators of both parties tend to cherish, if not worship, seniority.
“However, I think it was very important for pro-life, pro-marriage Americans to make their objections known in the strongest possible terms,” Land told Baptist Press. “It has resulted in Senator Specter and his colleagues being sensitized to a new depth level of the pro-life and pro-marriage convictions of tens of millions of Americans. And it has also elicited from the senator some commitments that, if kept, will result in no Judiciary Committee obstructions to an orderly nomination and confirmation process. Do I believe that Senator Specter will keep his commitments? I intend to trust but verify.”
Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson said Specter “will be held to his word.”
“The senator will have ample opportunity in his new position to follow through on his pledged support for the values of the Bush administration, the Senate leadership and the majority of this nation’s voters,” Dobson said in a written release. “The Republican Senate leaders have signed off on Arlen Specter assuming this important position — we put our trust in their judgment and in their diligence in holding him accountable. We will be watching Sen. Specter closely and reporting on him fully.”
Texas Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, who is a Judiciary Committee member, said in a written statement they were grateful for Specter’s commitment on Bush’s nominees, and “we intend to hold him to it.”
In his statement, Specter reiterated he had supported all of Bush’s nominees in his first term and had “no reason to believe that I’ll be unable to support any individual President Bush finds worthy of nomination.”
That comment drew skepticism from one pro-life lawyer. “You could drive a truck through that loophole,” said Jan LaRue, Concerned Women for America’s chief counsel.
Specter pointed out his opposition to the Democrats’ filibusters of several Bush appeals court nominees and said he would seek to stop such delaying tactics in the future. He did not explicitly endorse a rule change to avoid filibusters but said “there are relevant recent precedents to secure rule changes with 51 votes.”
Sixty votes are required to break a filibuster, and Republicans have signaled they may be willing to vote to change the rule so that only 51 votes are needed for judicial confirmation. Bush’s filibustered nominees gained majority votes but not the 60 votes to invoke cloture.
Specter also said he “would not support committee action to bottle up legislation or a constitutional amendment, even one which I personally opposed, reserving my own position for the floor.” Specter said during his successful re-election campaign this year he opposes a federal amendment to protect marriage as only between a man and a woman.
Specter’s written statement reportedly was released after negotiations about its content with Senate leaders and other GOP committee members.
In his post-election comments, Specter said it is “unlikely” that judges who would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion would gain confirmation, according to the Associated Press. He also affirmed his view that the right to abortion is “inviolate” and compared Roe to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education opinion rejecting desegregation, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Land and other pro-life leaders opposed Specter not only because of those comments but because of his long-standing support for abortion rights, including his leadership of the opposition to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. Bork was a Reagan nominee who opposed the Roe ruling and was rejected by the Senate.
Opponents of Specter pointed to the election results in support of their position. Exit polls from the presidential election showed 22 percent of voters cited “moral values” as the most important issue in determining how they voted, and nearly 80 percent of those cast their ballot for Bush.
The federal judiciary was a major issue in the campaign. After the election, Bush reaffirmed his support for strict constructionist judges. It has been predicted Bush may have the opportunity to replace as many as four justices in his second term.