Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said yesterday that Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, likely will succeed him as chairman of the Judiciary Committee with Mr. Hatch's full support.
"Arlen is an excellent lawyer," Mr. Hatch said. "I have total confidence that he will be supportive of the president and this administration."
Mr. Specter, under fire from conservatives for publicly questioning whether President Bush's pro-life judicial nominees can be confirmed, pleaded for the committee gavel in closed meetings yesterday with Republican leadership and fellow members of the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Specter is scheduled by seniority to assume control of the Judiciary Committee in January when Mr. Hatch must step down because of term limits.
"I expect him to be a great chairman," said Mr. Hatch, who added that most of the committee Republicans support him. "And I'm going to help him."
The news will not be greeted kindly by the conservative activists who gathered yesterday afternoon outside the Senate for a "pray-in" to oppose Mr. Specter.
"If Specter becomes head of the Judiciary, it is a betrayal and a slap in the face to millions of pro-life Americans who worked to help re-elect this president and get a 55-Republican majority in the Senate," said the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, who said this is only a precursor to the brewing battle over the next Supreme Court vacancy.
"No longer can the Republican Party turn to us and say, 'Thank you, pro-life, pro-family evangelicals and Catholics for your vote. Now, go home and let us legislate,'" he said.
The activists were pointed in their threats to desert Republicans if they don't get their way.
Republicans need "the same winning coalition that brought them their majority and that brought us a second term of George Bush in the White House," said Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council. "That winning coalition is deeply distressed. If they want to keep this coalition on their side, they will need to listen to what is said today."
Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, said, "Having Arlen Specter chair the Senate Judiciary Committee makes no more sense than having Michael Moore chair" the Republican National Committee.
Sen.-elect David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, stopped short of condemning Mr. Specter but said the party's victories earlier this month reflect a belief among voters that the judicial selection process has "completely broken down."
"I don't think it's an accident that the poster boy for obstructionism, [Minority Leader] Tom Daschle, was defeated," Mr. Vitter said.
Mr. Hatch said Mr. Specter's divergent political beliefs do not mean he won't fight aggressively for Mr. Bush's judicial nominees.
"The fact that he might be in total agreement with me or anybody else on the committee is irrelevant," Mr. Hatch said. "All I want is the committee to be operated in an honest, decent, effective manner, and I do want the administration to be supported."
Barely beneath the surface is the raw personal politics at play throughout the imbroglio.
One of Mr. Specter's most ardent supporters has been Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who leads the pro-life forces in the Senate and who has stuck his neck out for his seatmate on several occasions.
Mr. Santorum, who faces his own tough re-election in two years, helped Mr. Specter overcome a tough primary challenge earlier this year and has lobbied on Mr. Specter's behalf during this most recent firestorm.
"Sen. Santorum has been enormously helpful," Mr. Specter said yesterday after meeting with Republican leaders. "He has gone above and beyond the call of duty."
"My number one priority in the next two years is to re-elect Senator Santorum," Mr. Specter added.
Also in play are the political ambitions of several Republican senators who have an eye on succeeding Mr. Bush, including Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.
Religious activists protesting Mr. Specter clearly warned Mr. Frist and other Republicans yesterday that if they want their support in the 2008 Republican primary, they must block Mr. Specter from gaining the chairmanship.
Despite the confidence in Mr. Specter from many of his fellow Republicans, he is slated to appear before the full caucus today.
Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said last night that Mr. Specter and Republican leaders are working on a formal statement for the Pennsylvanian to issue as a condition to the support of several Republican senators.
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