Senate Republicans are speculating behind the scenes on ways to prevent one of their own — Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — from becoming the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Long a thorn in the side of conservatives, Mr. Specter further outraged many Republicans this week when he told reporters that President Bush should be “mindful” not to send pro-life judicial nominees to the Judiciary Committee for confirmation when he takes control of the committee in January.
“We are looking at a variety of ways to keep the gavel from going to Arlen Specter,” said one Republican Judiciary Committee staffer.
Though they disagreed widely on the likelihood of success, numerous Republican Senate aides contacted by The Washington Times yesterday concurred that efforts are under way to bar Mr. Specter from becoming chairman when term limits force Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, to surrender the gavel at the end of the current Congress.
One scenario that seems to be gaining momentum among Senate Republicans would be to give the chairmanship to Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who has seniority over Mr. Specter on the Judiciary Committee. But doing that would require Mr. Grassley to give up control of the Finance Committee, where he wields a great deal of power.
“There is an enormous amount of pressure on Senator Grassley to do this for the base,” said one Republican. “The idea would be for Senator Grassley to take one for the team for at least two years to send Specter a message that this is not what Americans voted for on Tuesday.”
Several Republicans said it was highly unlikely that Mr. Grassley would give up his committee for Judiciary. But others said the stakes are so high after Tuesday’s election when conservatives — who care passionately about judiciary matters — voted in unexpected droves.
Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said simply: “Senator Grassley will be serving four more years as chairman of Finance.”
In another scenario, committee Republicans would defy tradition and skip Mr. Specter in seniority.
“Under the rules, the committee members could simply vote for someone else,” said a third Republican aide familiar with the efforts.
If that happened, the chairmanship likely would go to Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who is next in line in seniority. Mr. Kyl could not be reached for comment yesterday.
While senators and staffers refused to discuss the efforts publicly, Mr. Specter is aware of the speculation and has issued two statements denying press accounts that he had warned Mr. Bush not to send pro-life nominees.
“Contrary to press accounts, I did not warn the president about anything and was very respectful of his constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges,” Mr. Specter said. “As the record shows, I have supported every one of President Bush’s nominees in the Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. I have never and would never apply any litmus test on the abortion issue.”
The latest imbroglio began during a press conference Wednesday when Mr. Specter said the pro-choice rights guaranteed with the Roe v. Wade decision are “inviolate.” He also compared the judicial supremacy of Roe v. Wade to that of Brown v. Board of Education, a decision that rendered racial segregation illegal.
Noting the Democratic-led filibusters against some of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees, some who were opposed to abortion rights, Mr. Specter said, “The president is well aware of what happened when a number of his nominees were sent up…. I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations that I mentioned.”
Conservatives in the Senate resumed discussions about ways to block Mr. Specter from controlling the committee, according to aides.
It didn’t help Mr. Specter’s case that incoming Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said yesterday that he agreed with his Republican colleague’s comments.
“I think Senator Specter is right and the fact that there was a negative reaction to his remarks is not a good omen,” he told reporters yesterday.
Several Republican Senate offices reported being inundated by phone calls and e-mail from outside groups enraged over Mr. Specter’s comments.
“We just got handed the opportunity of a lifetime and they don’t want us to screw it up,” said one Republican staffer.
“Arlen Specter must be removed from the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Mathew D. Staver, president of the conservative group Liberty Counsel. “We need an advocate who can weather the battle over the next appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. We certainly don’t want a muted neutral party, and we won’t accept an adversary.”
The controversy spawned an anti-Specter Web site, NotSpecter.com, which includes articles and Web postings criticizing Mr. Specter and arguing for his removal.
Republicans are particularly upset that Mr. Specter’s comments came the day after he was re-elected in a close race and on the very day Mr. Bush declared victory in his own re-election campaign. Republicans considered the remarks disloyal because Mr. Bush had worked to help Mr. Specter overcome a tough primary challenge. Also, they said, Mr. Specter did little to return the favor as Mr. Bush struggled — and eventually lost — the fight to win Pennsylvania.
Several other comments Mr. Specter made during his press conference also rubbed some conservatives the wrong way, such as when he suggested that Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the conservative icon being treated for thyroid cancer, lied about his medical prognosis last week.
“The chief justice is gravely ill,” Mr. Specter told reporters. “I had known more about that than had appeared in the media. When he said he was going to be back on Monday, it was known inside that he was not going to be back on Monday.”
Mr. Specter also was accused of insulting the entire high court by saying there are no legal giants on the bench. “With all due respect to the U.S. Supreme Court, we don’t have one,” he said.
“Yeah, there’s nobody of the caliber of, say, Robert Bork,” scoffed one Republican Judiciary staffer in reference to the revered Reagan nominee who was rejected in the Senate with crucial help from Mr. Specter. “I mean, all we’ve got on there are people like [Bork replacement] Anthony Kennedy. Gee, I wonder how that happened.”
Stephen Dinan and Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.