Critics of Senate Judiciary Chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter woke Tuesday morning to discover that the senior Senator from Pennsylvania has been a busy one-man employment agency for liberal lawyers and Democrats.
Tuesday morning brought word that Carolyn Short, a trial lawyer from Philadelphia, was leaving her practice to become a general counsel for the Specter and his Judiciary Committee.
Short, who has been on the job for a couple of days, has told friends that she views her job with Specter as "temporary," and will commute from her family's home outside of Philadelphia. Her husband is former U.S. Constitutional Center executive director and Democratic congressional candidate Joseph Torsella.
Short was an active advocate for her husband's failed campaign last year. For a local paper, she laid out his, and by association her, position: "The women who stand behind Joe stand behind him because he is the clear-cut candidate to go to Washington and get things done toward the issues that matter most to women of southeastern Pennsylvania -- creating better job opportunities, protecting the constitutional right to choose and working to make sure women have the health coverage they need."
Staff on the Judiciary committee have been told that Short will have broad responsibilities in her role, though it was made clear that she is not the lead counsel to Specter or the committee.
"Presumably she will be working on everything and anything the chairman wants her to work on: judges, tort reform, reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, you name it," says a Judiciary Committee staffer. "We are shocked that Specter is making this kind of hire. On the heels of the NAACP hire, and the heat we've been taking, we have to wonder how long Republican leaders will let this go on."
That is a reference to last week's news that Specter had hired, against the wishes of his staff, a former deputy counsel to the NAACP to work on the Republican staff of the Judiciary Committee.
On Tuesday, as word of Short's hiring spread among conservatives, the Judiciary staff was attempting to spin the news. Spokesmen and advisers to Specter were attempting to set up meetings with conservative journalists and activists to keep the burgeoning controversy within the conservative universe.
"They don't want this thing to get into the New York Times or the Washington Post," says the staffer of another U.S. Senator. "They seem to think that they can handle the heat from conservatives, but if the story really explodes in bigger venues, Specter is going to have problems."
The explosion may already be beginning. Word among conservatives was the Specter's actions were going to be the top agenda item at the weekly Wednesday morning meeting organized in Washington by Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.
As well, conservative Senate members of the Republican Steering Committee met at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, and Specter's hiring was one of the topics for discussion. "Nothing was decided," says the staffer of a conservative Southern Senator present at the meeting. "They are taking a wait and see attitude. But they are disturbed by what they have seen and read on this issue."
A clearer picture of just how much damage Specter has inflicted on himself may become clearer over the weekend when Republicans travel to the Greenbrier resort for their leadership retreat. There, Specter is expected to meet with a number of his colleagues, and to explain why he has been focusing on liberal Democrats in his hiring.
"The most troubling thing I read on this issue was that Specter had begun speaking to these people shortly after he secured the chairmanship," says a Senate leadership staffer. "Specter survives having his head lopped, has his senior staff promise that he will hire conservatives, then turns around and talks to his liberal Democratic chums. There is a growing impression up here that he was less than honest with his colleagues in order to win the chairmanship."
While Specter and his staff attempt to kill this furor, conservatives are awaiting some indication from the Senate Republican leadership that they will try to clean up the Specter mess. That may come as soon as this weekend. Given the confirmation battles that have developed for both Secretary of State and Attorney General, there has been little opportunity to the leadership to consider the political goings-on with Specter.