- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005


Specter transcript

The new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman favors more negotiations with Democrats over the so-called “nuclear option” Republicans could use to push President Bush’s judicial nominees through Democratic filibusters.

“I’m trying to set the stage to get the job done without going to the nuclear option,” Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said in a wide-ranging interview Friday with The Washington Times.

He was asked if he would support the “nuclear option” — changing Senate rules so that executive nominees can’t be filibustered — if negotiations fail.

“I’m not going to jump off that bridge until I come to it, and I hope I don’t come to it,” said Mr. Specter, sitting in his office on the first floor of the Capitol.

Backers of the option — termed “nuclear” because of its potential fallout in the Senate — say they have the 51 votes necessary to enact it and say it could be used at any moment. Some conservatives have complained for more than a year that the option hasn’t already been employed to dislodge the 10 filibustered Bush nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee gave Democrats until the end of last month to decide whether they wanted to continue the filibusters. If so, he said, they may face the nuclear option the next time a judicial nominee comes to the floor.

Barely into his second month as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Specter already is leaving his imprint. So far, he’s employed rigid time restraints on committee members and their meetings, helped confirm a new attorney general and approved sweeping tort-reform legislation, which is being debated on the Senate floor this week.

And his plans for the year are equally ambitious.

He wants to hold hearings on sentencing guidelines that the Supreme Court struck down last month, a move by the court, he said, that did not surprise him. Mr. Specter did not say whether he agreed with the high court’s decision, but warned against reacting too swiftly.

“It may be that the guidelines will be observed except with extraordinary cases, which may provide a guidance for legislation,” he said. “Let us see what the judges do, piece by piece.”

The chairman also plans hearings on the Patriot Act and hopes to make it permanent.

“That bill has been opposed from both the far right and the left,” he said. “I think there are valid considerations about obtaining records or library books without the customary statement of probable cause.”

Mr. Specter said he hopes — one day — to get television cameras into the Supreme Court.

“The court makes a decision on all the cutting-edge questions, and I think Americans ought to know what the court is doing,” he said.

Mr. Specter’s term so far has not been without a few bumps. The conservatives who so loudly protested Mr. Specter’s ascension to the chairmanship in the first place cried foul when he hired a lawyer from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — a constant foe of Republicans — for the Judiciary Committee staff.

“I made the hire because I think it’s very important for an office like mine to have diversity,” Mr. Specter said. “The fellow I hired had nothing to do with any of the NAACP lobbying. He’s a trial lawyer and he’s a very, very good one.”

While Mr. Specter said he is happy to be in the chairman’s seat, he still flashes the independent streak that earned him the nickname “Snarlin’ Arlen.”

Mr. Specter supports a Democratic amendment to the tort-reform bill that passed out of committee last month that hard-line reformers say deeply undermines the bill.

And his support for the proposals of his party’s president is not guaranteed.

Asked about Mr. Bush’s proposals on reforming Social Security, Mr. Specter said: “I’m not going to give the president a blank check, nor am I going to line up with the people who say they’re unalterably opposed. I’m against cutting Social Security benefits. I’m against borrowing extensively. But I want to see what the president has in mind.”

Asked if his re-election gave Mr. Bush a mandate, Mr. Specter said, “Well, I think he has a mandate. I think it’s largely how he handles it. I think it’s a malleable mandate.”

The considerable Democratic opposition in last week’s 60-36 vote to confirm Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales should not be viewed as a sign of the future, Mr. Specter said.

“We have had a pretty cooperative process on getting Judge Gonzales on and off [the committee’s agenda] in a day,” he said. “They could have dragged it out.”

However, debate over Mr. Gonzales’ confirmation unfairly became a debate about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Specter said.

“And those are very, very bad scenes,” Mr. Specter said. “They found the Gonzales confirmation hearing as a way to dig into that. And if they find a way to dig into anything to embarrass the president, they’re going to do it every time.”

Still, he’s hopeful that Mr. Bush’s filibustered judicial nominees can be confirmed without employing the “nuclear option.”

Mr. Specter said he’s studied the filibustered nominees and thinks he can find ways to pick up Democrats on them.

He will begin with Department of Interior Solicitor William G. Myers, nominated to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, for whom he said he can get support from Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Former Alabama Attorney General William Pryor — nominated to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and serving a temporary term on that bench — has “written a half dozen very moderate-progressive opinions,” Mr. Specter said. “I’ve circulated those among all the committee members and asked them to take a fresh look at Pryor.

“So, one by one, I’m going to try to peel them off.”

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