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Specter Faces Test Tuesday

With the roster of contentious nomination hearings filling up, Senate Republicans are moving quickly to rule on Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R-Pa.) bid to chair the Judiciary Committee with a pair of meetings Tuesday likely to determine his fate.

Recognizing that conservative activists intend to keep up the pressure to deny Specter the chairmanship, Senate leaders have set a meeting with the moderate Republican for Tuesday morning; the Pennsylvanian is slated to sit down with the nine other GOP members of the panel later that afternoon.

Aides said Specter still has the opportunity to lock up the chairmanship, but they stressed that it was extremely important to resolve the matter now rather than let it drag into early January, when committee chairmanships and panel rosters will be officially revealed.

Deciding who runs the panel sooner rather than later will allow for orderly preparations for the potentially volatile nomination hearings of Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales, even as Supreme Court observers anxiously watch Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s bout with thyroid cancer and speculation mounts that he may resign from the court soon.

No GOP Senator has publicly expressed opposition to Specter taking the chairmanship, although several junior lawmakers have voiced both concerns and the hope that the 24-year veteran would make clear and concise public statements in support of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Such a move would provide the Senators with the political cover to explain to conservative activists why they supported Specter, aides said.

At the same time, several veteran Republicans have stepped forward to defend Specter and publicly voiced their support for his chairmanship.

Calling Specter “a man of his word,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he would vote in the full GOP Conference to support Specter’s elevation.

“Arlen has assured me personally that he will take the lead as chairman of the Judiciary Committee in seeing that President Bush’s nominees are confirmed and that he will work with the administration on its legislative agenda,” said Lott, who received unflinching public support from Specter two years ago as his tenure as Majority Leader disintegrated amid a firestorm sparked by allegedly racially insensitive comments.

In staking his own claim to the Budget chairmanship, a promotion based almost entirely on seniority, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) called the Specter controversy “one of those issues in a period of slow news that is blown up.” Specter, he said, “has a good case to make for why he should be chairman.”

But the most critical players in the Specter drama remain Senate leaders and Judiciary Committee members, most of whom have remained silent or offered comments that were somewhat supportive, although they withheld final judgment.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), for example, addressed the Federalist Society on Thursday evening, and while throwing down the gauntlet against Democratic filibusters, he notedly didn’t mention the most critical pending issue on the matter, Specter’s bid for chairman.

At press time Friday, Frist had still not made a public comment on the matter but expected to be grilled about Specter in an appearance Sunday on “Fox News Sunday,” even as Specter continued his public defense on ABC’s “This Week.”

Specter will plead his case to Frist and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a meeting slated for Tuesday, to be followed up by a meeting of all 10 Judiciary Republicans later in the afternoon.

Despite Conference rules laying out an elaborate selection process, Republicans have always abided by tradition and awarded chairmanships solely on seniority on each panel — Gregg’s move to chair Budget being the latest example. But conservative activists outside Congress have been waging a guerrilla war against Specter through phone calls and e-mails since he made post-election comments in which he declared that any Supreme Court nominee opposed to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision would face a successful Democratic filibuster.

By Friday afternoon, the office of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Judiciary member, was so overwhelmed with calls against Specter that its main phone lines went into a recorded message, alerting callers to “press one” if they wanted to comment on Judiciary. “Please leave a short message after the tone,” the message said. “Senator Graham looks forward to hearing your comments.” (Callers on all other subjects were directed to press the number two.)

With pressure on his colleagues being ratcheted up daily, Specter needs to secure support from a majority of his fellow Republicans on the panel to assure his position. If he can win over his committee colleagues Tuesday, then it’s likely a foregone conclusion that a majority of the Conference will support Specter’s chairmanship bid in early January.

One scenario embraced by conservatives to settle the matter was officially quashed Friday, when aides to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) flatly stated he has no intention of giving up his Finance chairmanship to take over Judiciary. Grassley actually outranks Specter on Judiciary but has decided that he wants to continue to put his focus on taxes and entitlements, for which Finance will serve as ground zero as the Senate takes up tax reform and a Social Security overhaul — Bush’s top two legislative issues in the 109th Congress.

“Senator Grassley intends to remain Finance chairman,” said Jill Gerber, Grassley’s spokeswoman, noting he still has four years remaining on his six-year term chairing that panel.

In addition to talking to Bush directly, Specter has been meeting with and talking to his Senate Republican colleagues to try to reassure them of his intentions. Last Tuesday he met with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a Judiciary member who has suggested Specter would still likely win the chairmanship.

But, aides said, Cornyn and others have not been satisfied with Specter’s TV appearances defending himself to date and want him to make clear his views on the nominations process. One GOP aide suggested Specter should introduce a formal rule within the committee that would set in stone a guaranteed panel vote on a judicial nominee within a short period of time after a hearing is held.

As Cornyn put it to reporters last week, “I know that private conversations are sometimes remembered differently in the future. That’s why it’s important to memorialize things in a public fashion where everybody’s clear on what the understanding is.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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