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The Unseen Hand of Arlen Specter?

Questions on ACORN to Limbaugh-style tax cuts to TV cameras in the stimulus conference room.

By 2.11.09

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Questions.

* Will Arlen Specter press his colleagues to allow C-SPAN cameras in the House-Senate conference on the trillion dollar stimulus bill?

* Has the controversial left-wing activist group ACORN had its ability to get millions in federal pork stripped out of the Senate version of the stimulus bill?

* And does the percentage of spending versus tax cuts in the Senate bill resemble a proposal put forward recently on the pages of the Wall Street Journal by the nation's number one conservative radio talk show host -- Rush Limbaugh?

These are but three of many questions that Specter will be facing as he once again plays out his ongoing role as Pennsylvania's man-in-the middle during the ongoing negotiations over the stimulus bill. Along with Maine's GOP moderate Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, Specter has aroused the wrath of conservatives around the country and in his home state. At a weekend meeting of the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee -- which Specter missed because of the stimulus bill controversy -- he was nonetheless the center of attention. Unwelcome attention. One seething Committee member snapped to a reporter that the Senator was a "better Democrat" than many Democrats in Congress.

Specter never shies away from this kind of thing, meeting his critics head on.

Having made the rounds of conservative talk radio (getting into a dust-up with Laura Ingraham along the way), Specter keeps plowing along in the unglamorous bulldog role he has claimed for himself over the years, managing to anger just about everybody up to and including his Judiciary Committee colleague Ted Kennedy.

Yet Pennsylvanians familiar with Specter's career have long known to watch him very, very carefully at moments like this. He has an unerring ability to surprise even those who believe him to be on "their" side of an issue. Specter is, for example, pro-choice. Yet it was he in his role as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has regularly seen to it that Bush nominees from the federal district and appeals courts all the way to the two key nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito made it successfully through his committee and then the full Senate. Believing as he quite strongly does that "the country cannot afford to take action," Specter and his gang of three provided the votes that carried the Senate-version of the stimulus bill over the 60-vote threshold that was so sacred politically to President Obama. But, as with his work on pro-choice issues while getting conservative judges approved, along the way two curious things appear to have happened in the Senate bill that beg the obvious question: Who did this?

One was removing the monies that could conceivably have gone to ACORN, the group under investigation before the election for potential voter fraud. One of the sources of a complaint against ACORN was, yes indeed, the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee. The complaint, forwarded to federal authorities, revolved around ACORN's activities in several Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia and Delaware, two of the state's most populous. Funds that could have been accessed by ACORN (through a grant process) were present in the House version of the bill championed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Suddenly the funds have mysteriously vanished in the Senate version that Specter approved.

A second curiosity is even more interesting. Sources insist that the proportion of tax cuts-to-spending hikes (this would be pork) in the Senate version of the bill are now hovering closer to 54-46 percent. Something that is not true in the House bill. 54-46? Where did this seemingly arbitrary number come from? Specter has not said. Call me crazy, but I do believe this breakdown is exactly what was proposed on his radio show by one of Arlen Specter's decided non-fans, Rush Limbaugh. The number, of course, refers to the percentages of the Obama-McCain election results with Rush, in a typically bold throw of the philosophical gauntlet, suggesting that the stimulus bill follow the election results. So the question here is: Is this really so? What, exactly, are the ratios here and how much of the Senate version of this bill are in fact dedicated to tax cuts -- before the conference takes place?

Which brings us to the looming Senate-House conference on this monstrosity. (And it is a monstrosity that ought to go down. But it won't.)

Specter's GOP Senate colleague, Nevada's John Ensign, has quite appropriately picked up on Obama's insistence on bringing "transparency" to Washington? The obvious place to begin is with the Senate-House conference itself. Will Specter push for this?

Will he push for exactly what Obama says he wants, real, genuine transparency? Such as:

* Getting the C-SPAN cameras in the Conference room.

* Publishing the list of all Senate and House staff members involved, along with bios. Staff members, always seen sitting quietly behind their bosses, wield considerable clout in these kind of meetings. As we speak it is surely true that staff-only meetings are going on this very minute to consider both the substance and the procedures of the conference, the results of which will be agreed to by their bosses after staff-level negotiation. The public has a right to know who these un-elected people in the Conference room are.

* Insisting that every single proposal put in this final product have tagged with it the name of the proposing Senator or Congressman. Money for ACORN? The American people not only have a right to know who took it out of the Senate bill (Specter? Someone else?) they have a right to know who put it in the House bill in the first place. If change has really come to Washington, it is way past time for both the American people -- not to mention every member of Congress -- to know just who is adding exactly what to this bill. The word for this is: accountability.

* Lobbyists. Anyone with two seconds worth of time in Washington knows that lobbyists -- very well-paid lobbyists -- have a role in all of this. Just who are these people? Which lobbyists? For whom? What did they want in the bill? Who put it in the bill for them?

Anyone who has spent time watching Specter has to know that his vote for anything is always uncertain. Certainly, President Obama is going to get his way on this bill. Even had Specter, Snowe and Collins opposed it, Obama was still going to carry the day. But a clear line of responsibility for the results? On the eve of what could be a bruising re-election fight in Pennsylvania, Specter will want to make sure that the lines of accountability are clear, that his remaining role in this drama is known precisely. The Pennsylvania natives, as the saying goes, are restless.

Will Arlen Specter push to open up the Conference so his constituents and the rest of the country can get the transparency President Obama has asked for?

Did he -- would he -- scuttle ACORN?

What exactly is the real percentage of tax cuts to spending in the bill he approved? And why?

Inquiring minds all over Pennsylvania would like to know.

UPDATE

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.