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Haunting Specter

Arlen Specter's impending chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee has conservatives concerned

Issue: "Yasser Arafat: In memoriam," Nov. 20, 2004

The day after winning a dicey reelection fight, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, presumptive new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a press conference in which reporters asked him how he would handle pro-life judicial nominees. Perhaps feeling flush with imminent power, the famously pro-abortion Republican pledged allegiance to Roe vs. Wade-and seemed to warn President Bush that his judicial nominees should do likewise.

Those remarks ignited protests by conservatives who jammed airwaves and Senate phone lines, questioning Sen. Specter's fitness to chair the committee that would chart the future direction of the Supreme Court. Sensing his imminent power slipping away, he scrambled to "clarify" his earlier statements:

At the press conference: "Roe v. Wade is inviolate . . . nobody can be confirmed today who didn't agree with Brown v. Board of Education on integration . . . or precedent which I think protects [Roe]," Sen. Specter said.

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Clarification: "I've never had a litmus test."

At the press conference: "The president is well aware of what happened when a number of his nominees were sent up, were filibustered . . . I would expect the President to be mindful of the considerations that I mentioned."

Clarification: "I was not warning the president of anything. It was misreported."

Now, conservatives are wondering which Arlen Specter they're dealing with: The senator who voted to confirm pro-life justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas-or the one who may (or may not) have promised the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board in October that if he was made judiciary chairman, no extremists would ascend the federal bench? The senator who opposed the federal appellate court nomination of pro-life judge Jeff Sessions and the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork-or the one who last week personally assured President Bush that he would ensure prompt hearings and floor votes for all judicial nominees?

Paul Weyrich, a veteran Beltway insider who heads the conservative Free Congress Foundation, said it's tough to tell, since in his view Sen. Specter has a history of saying whatever is necessary to save his political skin. In a Nov. 10 Wall Street Journal editorial, for example, the senator defended his fitness for the chairmanship, writing that he "led the fight to confirm Justice Clarence Thomas, which almost cost me my Senate seat in 1992."

But Sen. Specter neglected to mention that to save his seat that year, he appealed to-then snubbed-pro-family conservatives. Embattled and under attack by women's groups who were angry over his grilling of Thomas-accuser Anita Hill, Sen. Specter asked Mr. Weyrich to rally pro-family groups to support his reelection. Though he disagreed with Sen. Specter on most issues-particularly on abortion-Mr. Weyrich said, "I held my nose and supported him." Pro-family groups followed suit, and Sen. Specter narrowly won reelection.

"Before the election, Specter made all sorts of representations, saying if we supported him, he'd be more inclined to listen to [pro-family] concerns and be more supportive," Mr. Weyrich says now. "But as soon as he got elected, it was the same old arrogance."

Ironically, in working the phones since the Nov. 3 press conference that put his chairmanship in jeopardy, Sen. Specter once again called Mr. Weyrich-this time to ask why conservatives were so up in arms over his pending judiciary chairmanship.

"I told him we were profoundly concerned over his promise to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he would keep President Bush's pro-life nominees off of the U.S. Supreme Court," Mr. Weyrich said. "He claimed he never made such a promise. He said he might have said 'extremist judges,' but he never would have said 'pro-life judges.'"

As published in the Oct. 24 Post-Gazette, Mr. Specter reportedly told the editorial board that "no extremists would be approved for the bench." But Post-Gazette editorial page editor Tom Waseleski told WORLD that the word "extremist" was the newspaper's word, not the senator's.

What was Mr. Specter's word, then?

"I don't know," Mr. Waseleski replied, "I can't find that notebook where I took notes from that meeting."

Did the senator say "pro-life judges?"

"I can't remember," Mr. Waseleski said.

Given the Senate's long tradition of assigning chairmanships to the senior member, Beltway observers say Sen. Specter, a 24-year Judiciary Committee veteran, will likely succeed Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in the job, despite conservative opposition. Still, according to Senate rules, when committee Republicans meet in January to cast secret ballots for the chairmanship, they need not cast them for the senior man. Interestingly, among the voters will be Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions-the same Jeff Sessions whom Sen. Specter opposed for a seat on the federal bench.

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