Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday that Sen. Arlen Specter has addressed the concerns of the caucus and the Tennessee Republican signaled that Mr. Specter will be the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I think he answered every question to the satisfaction of each of the members,” Mr. Frist said yesterday after Mr. Specter spoke to a meeting of the entire Republican caucus. He called it a “positive discourse, a great discussion.”

Republican senators and aides say Mr. Specter — with consultation from Mr. Frist’s office — is preparing an official statement to be issued as early as today.

“Senator Specter, in all likelihood, will have more to say over the next two to three days, or by the end of the week,” Mr. Frist said. “I do want to bring as much resolution as possible to that discussion.”

Mr. Specter, a Pennsylvanian who is next in line by seniority to assume the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, created an uproar among conservatives earlier this month by saying that President Bush’s pro-life judicial nominees will have a hard time being confirmed.

Many viewed the remarks as a threat from Mr. Specter, who supports legalized abortion.

“This is a betrayal,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. “The millions of pro-life and pro-family voters who elected George Bush and widened the Senate majority are completely disappointed with Republican leadership and Senator Frist in particular. This is the exact wrong way to begin.”

But even with the assurances expected to be in Mr. Specter’s statement, Republicans suspect that their 55-seat majority will not be enough to overcome Democratic filibusters of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominations.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said all options are on the table, including a change that would require 51 votes, rather than 60, for final confirmation of judicial nominees. Still, he said, he hopes it does not come to that drastic measure.

“The Democrats got their nose bloodied in this election,” he said. “What ought to happen is they should back off.”

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, met yesterday with Alberto Gonzales, the Bush administration’s nominee for attorney general. Mr. Leahy told the White House counsel to be prepared for tough and lengthy questioning by the panel, but that he expected the nomination would be confirmed.

Mr. Leahy described Mr. Gonzales as “less divisive” than Attorney General John Ashcroft, a former U.S. senator who often clashed with Democrats on the committee over the war on terrorism.

He told reporters, “The president could have picked a more polarizing figure. He did not. I applaud him for that. I think he has a far better chance of confirmation with votes from both sides of the aisle than a more divisive figure.”

But he warned that Democrats would seek an explanation from Mr. Gonzales’ views on how the Geneva Conventions would apply to the war on terrorism, based on a 2002 memo he wrote to Mr. Bush saying the president has the authority to waive anti-torture laws and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. Some critics have tied that memo to abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Mr. Leahy, in a statement earlier this week, said he liked and respected Mr. Gonzales and looked forward to the committee’s consideration of his nomination.

“The Justice Department in the first Bush term was the least-accountable Justice Department in my lifetime,” he said. “Meaningful oversight and accountability were thwarted for years. We will be looking to see if Judge Gonzales intends to change that.”

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