After bitterly attempting to deny Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) the gavel, conservative activists are now beginning to praise the five-term moderate as an unexpected ally in several key battles this year.
Specter, who was nearly denied the chairmanship last November after an eruption on the right regarding comments he made about Roe v. Wade, has won some grudging respect from conservatives in recent weeks. Those activists have been particularly pleased with his handling of the run-up to this week’s confirmation hearing for Judge John Roberts, who is President Bush’s nominee for chief justice of the United States.
“In the context of this confirmation hearing, he has been spectacular,” said Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, a conservative group of lawyers.
Jay Sekulow, a point person among conservatives as chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said Specter’s performance had exceeded the “forecasts of doom by some on the right.”
Even former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who openly endorsed Specter’s primary opponent in April 2004, said that he was expecting the chairman to handle the Roberts hearings “very fairly,” and added that he believes Specter has been a “strong chairman.”
By no means are conservatives starting a fan club for the chairman — indeed, most of their praise has been hedged with such phrases as “so far.” But conservatives have had an easier legislative road this year thanks to Specter’s support for a large chunk of the Bush agenda and his avid support of his judicial nominations.
And some of the younger conservative Senators on his panel say that Specter has emerged as the right person to run what has become the chamber’s most partisan committee. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Specter has been “evenhanded” and “fair” to conservatives on the committee with whom the chairman disagrees with personally on issues.
Because Specter has had fights with the conservative movement for nearly two decades, he comes to the chairmanship with a perceived independence from them that ultimately yields a big benefit to the White House and Senate Republicans when he does come down on their side, Graham said.
“It helps in the sense that he’s not looked at as an ideologue,” he added. “It gives the committee some credibility, and he’s probably the perfect guy to be chairman.”
Leo said that the two-week gavel fight Specter underwent in November helped him understand what a different role it is to be chairman. “By taking the chairmanship, he was taking a different role. He’s not a free agent anymore,” he said.
Even as he continues to earn a level of praise from senior Democrats and some liberal activists, Specter has repeatedly been on the side of conservatives more often than not this year on the big issues before his committee.
At Monday’s hearing, his opening statement ticked off a litany of issues the panel has worked on this year: the somewhat contentious confirmation of an attorney general, an overhaul of bankruptcy and class-action rules, re-authorization of the highly contentious USA PATRIOT Act and the confirmation of a handful of previously filibustered appellate court nominees. It read like a wish list for conservatives.
In advance of the Roberts hearings, Specter defended the White House position that writings and memos from Roberts’ tenure at the Solicitor General’s office about 15 years ago should remain sealed.
And on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Specter objected, somewhat unexpectedly, to the idea of elevating Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the Supreme Court to fill the court’s remaining vacancy on the court. That puts him in step with conservatives who are wary that Gonzales harbors comparatively moderate positions on social issues.
And Specter achieved all this while fighting off Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer, which was diagnosed in February and which until the end of July prompted chemotherapy every other Friday at the University of Pennsylvania’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
In an interview after Monday’s opening day of hearings, Specter spread credit among the membership of the entire panel. And he brushed off any suggestion that his presence in the spotlight represented any kind of redemption.
“This committee has delivered,” he said. “It hasn’t just been me.”
Indeed, part of Specter’s recent run of success has been his ability to work through procedural issues with Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Judiciary’s ranking member, as well as his good relationship with Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Both GOP and Democratic aides say that Specter has smoothed over relations with Leahy in a way that had become impossible under former Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who bitterly fought with Leahy during President Bush’s first term. Hatch later stepped down due to internal GOP rules limiting chairmen’s terms.
“All committees should have the working relationship that these two have,” Reid said of Specter and Leahy last week.
Liberal activists have taken note of Specter’s tendency to work through things privately with Leahy. “He hasn’t been as confrontational as Sen. Hatch,” said Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way. “He’s tried to resolve things in a bipartisan way.”
But, in the same breath, Neas noted with frustration that Specter has “marched in lockstep with President Bush on judicial nominations for the past four-and-a-half years.”
“He’s a paradox,” said Nan Aron, head of the Alliance for Justice, noting Specter’s primary role in defeating Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 and his subsequent support of almost every nominee from both President Bushes.
“He’s someone who, ever since Bork, has walked a very fine line, and someone who has done it effectively,” Aron said.
For conservatives, the biggest question mark came in May, when the Senate faced down the fight over filibusters of judicial nominations.
Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was poised to force a parliamentary vote banning them, and he needed just 50 votes to do it. According to Democratic and GOP Senators, the vote was 49 Senators on Frist’s side, 50 against and Specter the lone holdout. He never publicly stated his position — although he stood at Frist’s side at what would have been the start of that floor debate — and he never had to once the “Gang of 14” deal averting that vote materialized.
Still uncertain whether he was on their side in the filibuster fight, conservative activists were happy to see Specter quickly work to win confirmation for such judges as Priscilla Owen to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — a confirmation victory that now has her on some lists to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
On Monday, Specter again refused to say how he will vote on the Roberts nomination, maintaining his independence and awaiting to hear the nominee answer his questions. He rejected any suggestion that these hearings were personal vindication for a 25-year roller-coaster ride in the Senate, but his smiles and jokes with the press afterward betrayed a sense of satisfaction about being in charge.
“It’s one of those slight perks you get if you stay around long enough and you don’t get indicted,” he said.