Bypassing Specter as Judiciary Committee Chairman

There is a move afoot to prevent Senator Arlen Specter from becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which controls the confirmation of judicial appointments, after his controversial remarks last week.

Conservative leader targets Specter (CNN)

The head of a leading conservative group said Sunday that Sen. Arlen Specter “is a big-time problem” and that his quest to serve as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee “must be derailed.” The comments from James Dobson, founder of the nonprofit Christian organization Focus on the Family, came four days after the moderate Republican from Pennsylvania told reporters that any Supreme Court nominee intent on overturning Roe v. Wade probably would not win Senate approval. “When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, who’d overturn Roe versus Wade, I think that is unlikely,” Specter said Wednesday, in the wake of President Bush’s re-election. “And I have said that bluntly during the course of the campaign, that Roe versus Wade was inviolate.”

That comment sparked an avalanche of criticism from Christian conservatives who supported Bush’s campaign. But Specter said Sunday that his remark was misconstrued and argued the uproar was fueled by people opposed to his “independence.”


Specter said he has supported all of Bush’s nominees, as well as Rehnquist, who has opposed Roe v. Wade, and that he led the fight to confirm justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative. “So my record is pretty plain, that, although I am pro-choice, I have supported many pro-life nominees,” Specter said. He added that his comments were simply an acknowledgment that 60 votes are needed to end debate in the Senate and confirm a nominee. “But with 55 Republicans, you aren’t at the magic number of 60, so you have to anticipate problems with the Democrats, as we had a lot of them in the past Congress.”

The opposition would be far more meaningful if it had a more moderate face than Dobson’s. Specter’s assessment of the politics of the situation was correct. His error was twofold: Making the remarks publically, thus embarrasing the president on the heels of an unexpectedly strong re-election victory, and not making it clear that he would, of course, fight for any nominee the president made.

Still, Robert Novak believes ousting Specter is more than just fanciful thinking on the part of Christian fundamentalists.

[Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist] is considering asking the full Republican Conference to waive term limits for Hatch. The majority leader also may let Hatch keep his chairmanship temporarily to handle any immediate Supreme Court vacancy. Frist could mobilize a majority of the Judiciary committee’s expected 11 Republicans in the new Congress to breach seniority and bump Specter.

My guess is that neither Bush nor Frist will be willing to expend the required political capital to oust Specter, who will be allowed to ascend to the chairmanship rather chastened by the controversy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    My guess is that neither Bush nor Frist will be willing to expend the required political capital to oust Specter, who will be allowed to ascend to the chairmanship rather chastened by the controversy.

    That’s a reasonable prediction — though Specter’s been in office long enough, he ought to have learned some of these lessons long before now.

  2. The Monk says:

    The notion that Specter will be chastened EVER is ludicrous on its face. The man is simply shameless. This is the same man who invoked SCOTTISH law at the Clinton impeachment trial (either Clinton was guilty or he was not guilty, no “not proven” option allowed). He is also famous for biting the hand that feeds him: Bush spent a great amount of time rallying for Specter in the Pennsylvania Republican primary this year (which Specter won by less than 2% of the vote) and the thanks Bush gets is Specter’s backhanding in the Senator’s Wednesday press conference. See here for more.

  3. Jeremiad Screamer says:

    Now we find out just how much power the religious right has in the postelection arena. Can they engineer Specter’s downfall or can the Senator straddle and balance, arms flailing furiously, to get his chairmanship? I think that Sen. Spector, a consummate politician, will find his balance point, leaning more than a bit to the right this time. :-0

  4. Anjin-San says:

    I am confused. I thought the “hand that feeds” Sen Spector was that of the people of the State of Pennsylvania.

    Personally, I am gratified the the Senator does not seem to feel a need to kowtow before Bush. The trend twoards reshaping political processes in DC to something that resembles a Soviet style rubber stamp congress then the representative form of goverment that our founding fathers bequethed us is something that should concern us all.

    Spector is “too independent”? Lets keep in mind that our country was built upon a Declaration of Independence…