Political Hay

Specter Defanged

He gets to be chairman, but on conservative terms.

By 11.18.04

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After an outcry from conservatives following his post-election remarks in which he seemed to declare his independence from the White House and his fealty to Roe vs. Wade, it seemed for a while that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania might lose the Judiciary Committee chairmanship that, by conventions of seniority, he was in line to inherit.

For Specter to be denied his chairmanship would have been a good thing, but yesterday it was confirmed that that is not going to happen. What has happened is even better.

Yesterday the famously prickly Specter issued a remarkably deferential statement, prepared at the behest of his fellow committee members, saying in part:

I have assured the president that I would give his nominees quick committee hearings and early committee votes so floor action could be promptly scheduled...

I... will use my best efforts to stop any future filibusters... If a rule change is necessary to avoid filibusters, there are relevant recent precedents to secure rule changes with 51 votes.

I intend to consult with my colleagues on the committee's legislative agenda, including tort reform, and we'll have balanced hearings with all viewpoints represented.

I have long objected to the tactic used in bottling up civil rights legislation in the Judiciary Committee when it should have gone to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Accordingly I would not support committee action to bottle up legislation or a constitutional amendment, even one which I personally opposed, reserving my own position for the floor.

One needn't simply take his word when Arlen assures us that he's no longer Snarlin'. Specter is caught in a virtuous cycle of mutual back-scratching with his junior Senator, Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Senate Republican who worked behind the scenes to save Specter's hide. First elected during the Republican wave of 1994 with just 49% of the vote and reelected in 2000 with just 52% of the vote against a weak Democratic challenger whom he outspent three to one, Santorum will be among the most vulnerable incumbents in 2006. Specter's debt to Santorum involves helping calm suburbanite voters who, wary of Santorum's staunch social conservatism, might be inclined to support a Democrat in large numbers. But perhaps more importantly, it means not turning conservatives against Santorum. Santorum will no doubt campaign in part on his ability, thanks to his leadership position, to advance the interests of Pennsylvania, and coming to Specter's aid may be cited as an example; it won't do for Specter's behavior over the next two years to anger Santorum's base.

If Specter makes trouble for conservative nominees during the next two years, his betrayal, he must now realize, will have consequences. His fellow Senators were nearly willing to throw away precedents to deny him his chairmanship because of conservative mistrust of the kind of things Specter might do as Judiciary Chairman; Specter would be a fool to give them an immediately recent record to point to. As liberal Sam Rosenfeld wistfully put it on the American Prospect's blog earlier this week, "Arlen Specter the independent and outspoken senior senator from Pennsylvania has already lost out on the chairmanship, and at best an empty vessel for carrying out the White House's judicial priorities in the droopy visage of Arlen Specter will be taking the helm."

He says that like it's a bad thing.

But it's not just that most of the goals behind the campaign against Specter have been achieved. The inherent risks in actually denying Specter the chairmanship have also been avoided. Stripped from the chairmanship, Specter would be more likely to oppose nominees, and less likely to help break filibusters. Senate moderates, already showing an interest in organizing, would be antagonized and might conclude that the best hope to assert influence is to inch leftward; given that the GOP's squish faction is at least five Senators strong -- in addition to Specter, it includes Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and depending on the issue, several others -- that could seriously jeopardize the Republican agenda.

That's much less of a concern now. And thanks to conservatives' efforts, so is Arlen Specter.

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About the Author

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.