Specter flap rallies the right
Emboldened by fresh victories, conservatives have used his remark to press a larger agenda.
WASHINGTON — In the end, Arlen Specter seems likely to take his seat as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee after all.
But it won't come without a pound of flesh. Ultimately, the two-week firestorm the moderate Pennsylvania Republican has faced since his comments on judicial nominations, made right after his reelection to the Senate, demonstrates just how emboldened the right wing of the Republican Party has become.
Not just antiabortion religious conservatives but also economic conservatives pushing for tort reform have used the Specter flap to make their message clear: With President Bush reelected and larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the time has come to enact the conservative agenda.
"It reflects the lines of division in the election, and is in a sense the first skirmish in what's going to be a long war," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
Now, a chastened Senator Specter, after multiple TV appearances and closed-door meetings with senators, has put himself on record as promising to ease the way to confirmation for judicial nominations Bush sends to the committee, in spite of Specter's personal support for abortion rights.
Ironically, if Specter had not made his Nov. 3 comment, he could, theoretically, have given the Bush administration more heartache on judicial nominations than he can now. Still, it hardly seemed possible in the first place that the Arlen Specter of old - the one who opposed conservative Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987 - would have come back to take the chair of the gatekeeping Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bush had helped Specter win a tough Republican primary race in Pennsylvania against a conservative, and then helped him, too, in the general election. So Specter already owed the White House, and was not expected to give Bush trouble with judicial nominees. As Specter has repeated over and over since his controversial comment, he has supported every Supreme Court nominee that has come down the pike since Judge Bork, including Clarence Thomas, as well as the other federal court nominees, some of whom were bottled up by Democrat-led filibusters.
Unlike the flap two years ago over then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott's praise of onetime segregationist Strom Thurmond - which cost Senator Lott his leadership role - Specter's offending comment at least had the merit of being true.
At his postelection news conference Nov. 3, Specter said that if Bush sent up judicial nominees who favored overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, they would probably be blocked by Democrats.
"The president is well aware of what happened, when a number of his nominees were sent up, with the filibuster," Specter said. "And I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning."
Some Republicans - and their newly emboldened social-conservative allies - took Specter's comment as a warning to Bush not to send up anti-Roe nominees, and were offended. And even if some Republican senators are still withholding judgment on Specter's ascension to the committee chairmanship, over time other key names have stepped forward. On Tuesday, the current committee chair, Orrin Hatch of Utah, said he expected his GOP colleagues to approve Specter.
Part of what may save Specter's chairmanship is the Senate's institutional pride. Seniority rules, which require Senator Hatch to step down from the chairmanship at the end of the current Congress, put Specter next in line. Some members who might prefer a chair other than Specter may also fear breaking that rule, lest they jeopardize their own shot at a committee chairmanship some day under similar circumstances.
The White House has stayed publicly neutral, adopting the usual position that this was for the Senate to work through. But, analysts say, it would not be in the White House's interest for their allies in the Senate to be seen as being in the thrall of religious conservatives. On Tuesday, the photo op from Capitol Hill was of anti-Specter activists holding a "pray-in."
The White House, too, remembers the defection from GOP ranks almost four years ago of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, now an independent. In the next Senate, the GOP will have 55 members - still not enough to break filibusters - and the party can ill afford to risk any reruns of the Jeffords episode with its remaining moderates.
The real question over the Specter flap, says Senate-watcher Jennifer Duffy, is whether it suggests to moderates that they are not only in the desert in their party, but that they can also be punished. "I think conservatives are sending that message, and I think it's going to bite them," says Ms. Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report.
Marshall Wittmann, formerly of the Christian Coalition and now a political independent at the Democratic Leadership Council, believes GOP tensions will come to the surface in the 2008 election cycle, when Bush is not on the ballot and moderates are running against conservatives within the party. "The big factor here is whether anyone who has any moderate position on these social issues can now find a place in a leadership position in the party, given the newfound strength of the religious right," says Mr. Wittmann.
"My sense is that people within the upper echelon of the Republican Party are a little bit concerned about the overinterpretation of the role the religious right had in this past cycle. I sense that they want to pull this back somewhat, because they're raising the expectations of the religious right and also they may have to bow to their pressures."