- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, one of the Republican Party’s most outspoken pro-choice members, has become an unlikely hero among conservatives opposed to abortion for his handling of President Bush’s judicial nominations.

“Our organization doesn’t agree with Senator Specter on many of the issues,” said Joseph Cella, president of the conservative Catholic group Fidelis. “But on the issue of handling these hearings with dignity, he gets an A-plus.”

Mr. Cella and other conservatives point to Mr. Specter’s success at getting the nomination of Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. through his committee without a scratch. They also are pleased with the hearings for Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., who is widely expected to be confirmed this month.

The most widely replayed exchange from the Alito hearings last week was between Mr. Specter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who conducted the most spirited interrogation of Judge Alito.

Mr. Kennedy asked Mr. Specter to subpoena records he said might reveal more information about Judge Alito. When Mr. Specter wouldn’t immediately agree, Mr. Kennedy threatened a parliamentary maneuver to overrule Mr. Specter.

“We’re going to have votes of the committee again and again and again until we have a resolution,” Mr. Kennedy said.

“Well, Senator Kennedy,” Mr. Specter replied sharply, “I’m not concerned about your threats to have votes again, again and again. I’m the chairman of this committee and I have heard your request, and I will consider it. And I’m not going to have you run this committee.”

Conservatives saw it as a moment where Mr. Specter — famously prickly with friends and foes alike — had put the biggest Democrat on the committee in his place.

“Senator Specter went toe-to-toe with Kennedy,” Mr. Cella said.

Conservative groups that follow judicial nominations most closely — many of which opposed Mr. Specter’s elevation to committee chairman last year — have applauded the Pennsylvania Republican in recent weeks for running orderly hearings and disarming many of Mr. Bush’s most ardent detractors on the committee.

“He has a very distinct view of what the chairman’s role is, which is to be a referee who sets the tone of questions early on,” said Leonard Leo, a former Federalist Society executive vice president who has been advising the White House on how to handle high court nominations.

Right out of the gate, Mr. Specter peppered both Judges Alito and Roberts with questions about whether they would uphold the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which established abortion as a constitutional right. Mr. Specter made no secret of his view that Roe should be upheld, showing off a chart of some 48 cases that have cited it as precedent.

While Mr. Specter’s tactic doesn’t exactly thrill many conservatives, they also see the value in it.

“It’s always helpful to have those critical issues vented early so that the nominee can explain his position while he is still fresh and just out of the box,” Mr. Leo said.

And, unlike some Democrats on the committee, Mr. Specter isn’t prepared to reject a nominee based on assurances about one court ruling.

“He’s not looking for a nominee who blindly defers to Roe,” Mr. Leo said. “He’s looking for someone who can basically keep an open mind. Those are the answers he wants to hear.”

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