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Specter Seeks to Quell Health Concerns

Eight days after announcing he was suffering from an advanced form of Hodgkins’ disease, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) returned to the Senate today to host a nearly 50-minute press conference outlining a vigorous personal and legislative agenda for the weeks and months ahead.

Coming off his first chemotherapy treatment Friday, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee mapped out a near-term agenda for the panel that included plans to personally manage the floor debate on the bankruptcy bill next week and overseeing the first round of contentious judicial nomination battles.

The press conference was held primarily to lay out the committee agenda, but clearly just as important was Specter’s wish to demonstrate he still had the physical stamina to handle the job. At one point a staffer said “last question” before Specter quickly vetoed that idea and said he would take 10 more questions.

“My doctors tell me it is an ailment that is fully curable,” he said early in the session before a packed room of reporters in the Senate’s Radio/TV gallery, adding the litany of previous health ailments he has bested, a list that includes brain tumors and open-heart surgery. “I’m going to beat this problem, too.”

He looked little different from a few weeks ago, although his voice was slightly hoarse. He wiped his brow a few times very late in the press conference.

The bankruptcy debate begins on the Senate floor Monday at 2 p.m., and Specter will manage that bill on the floor. On Tuesday, in addition to managing the floor debate, he will also oversee the nomination hearing of William Myers to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the 10 filibustered appellate court nominees from the 108th Congress, seven of which have been renominated this Congress.

Also on Tuesday, after the weekly party luncheons, Specter will lead a meeting of top Republicans at 2:30 p.m. in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to discuss the latest status of the asbestos bill negotiations. And on Thursday he will chair another contentious nomination hearing, that of Terrence Boyle to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I have a lot of stamina,” Specter said in response to a question about whether he could handle the workload.

While Specter did not break any new ground in his press conference, he sent his strongest signal yet that he wants to avoid a major nomination battle on the floor that would prompt the Republicans to resort to the parliamentary procedure to unilaterally change the rules to end filibusters of judicial nominees, the so-called nuclear option.

“I have not made a judgment on it,” he said, adding that the gridlock on other issues that is promised by Democrats might not be worth the short-term gain of more judges on the bench. “The Senate will be in turmoil and the Judiciary Committee will be in hell.”

He added later that Frist wants Specter to move some of the nominees that might succeed in breaking a filibuster first. “Senator Frist wants to avoid the confrontation if he can,” he said.

For that very reason Specter plans to move Myers first, a nominee the chairman believes has 58 votes for confirmation at the outset, just two short of the 60 needed to invoke cloture and scuttle the filibuster.

“That’s within hailing distance,” he said.

And, in the clearest public sign yet that Senate leaders expect Chief Justice William Rehnquist to step down by the end of this Supreme Court term in June, Specter announced that the committee’s staff had begun the “extensive research” on all procedures that go into a nomination for the high court.

He stopped short of saying aides were researching the backgrounds of potential nominees to replace Rehnquist, although that work has already been handled by staff and various interest groups.

“We wish him the tenure on the court that he would choose,” Specter said of Rehnquist, who is suffering from thyroid cancer.

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