Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said yesterday that Republicans are partly to blame for the escalating standoff over several of President Bush’s judicial nominations.
“Both parties are at fault,” the Pennsylvania Republican said at a Capitol Hill press conference.
“During the last six years of President Clinton, when Republicans took control of the Senate in 1995, we slow-walked his nominees,” said Mr. Specter, who has been on the Judiciary Committee for 25 years. “A lot of them didn’t get hearings, and we exacerbated the problem.”
Such conciliatory motions by Mr. Specter worry some conservatives in legal circles that he is implicitly conceding that the whole debate over judicial filibusters is just a partisan political spat over minor excesses in the Democratic use of the filibuster.
But those conservatives, who long have been wary of the liberal Mr. Specter, say the debate is actually a matter of constitutional principle. Filibusters against judicial nominees should never occur, they say, and when they do, they should be struck down swiftly and without apology.
“We are concerned by the chairman’s assertion that under some circumstances, judicial filibusters are justified and legitimate,” said Sean Rushton, executive director of Committee for Justice, a conservative group that supports Mr. Bush’s nominees.
“Our position has been that the judicial filibusters have no historical analogy and conflict with the Constitution’s principle of ‘advise and consent’ and separation of powers,” he said.
So far, 10 of Mr. Bush’s 44 nominees to the federal appeals court have been filibustered by a Senate minority of Democrats, bringing the approval rate of Mr. Bush’s nominees to the lowest of any modern president, according to a recent study by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Earlier this month, Mr. Bush resubmitted those filibustered nominees, drawing ire from Democrats and promises of continued filibusters.
Mr. Specter says he is determined to negotiate with Democrats and declined to endorse the so-called “nuclear option” favored by some Republicans to overrule on filibusters against judicial nominees and force them through to at least a final floor vote.
“I prefer not to come to that bridge, and I’m certainly not going to jump off a bridge until I come to it,” he said when asked whether he supports the option. “I’m going to exercise every last ounce of my energy to solve this problem without the nuclear option.”
Mr. Specter’s remarks were met with approval from top Democrats on the panel.
“He outlined the bipartisan progress that we are making together on several efforts, including asbestos litigation and hearings the committee will hold on privacy and identity theft issues,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s ranking Democrat.
But Mr. Leahy didn’t offer much optimism for compromise on the stuck nominees.
“The conflict between the White House and the Senate over controversial judicial nominees is unnecessary, and it would serve the country far better to have nominees who do not divide the Senate and the American people,” he said.
“I have been urging the president to work with the Senate for some time. The chairman was correct to recognize the role the Constitution envisions for the Senate in the lifetime appointment of federal judges,” he said.
Mr. Specter ascended to the committee chairmanship over strong objections from conservatives who worry about his pro-choice stance and other views that are more liberal than the Republican Party mainstream.
Earlier this month, he raised eyebrows when he became the only Republican in the Senate to vote for an amendment to a bill to limit class-action lawsuits, which conservatives said would have watered down the bill to the point of uselessness.
Had the amendment passed, the Class Action Fairness Act likely would have failed for a fourth time.
Mr. Specter defended his support for amending the Class Action bill yesterday and noted that he voted for the final bill even though the amendment failed.
At yesterday’s press conference in the Capitol, Mr. Specter acknowledged that he faces much scrutiny from conservatives.
“To say that every move I make is under a microscope would be to understate the issue,” he said to laughter.
Mr. Specter, who appeared strong and alert after his first bout of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease less than a week ago, drew praise from Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and one of the most vocal members of the Judiciary Committee.
“You have a long history of fairness when it comes to approaching the judicial nominations process,” Mr. Schumer wrote in a letter yesterday to Mr. Specter. “You have always approached individual nominees, and the process itself, with a desire to give every nominee a fair shot, but also to protect the prerogatives of the Senate.”
In the letter, he implored Mr. Specter to put together a “small, bipartisan group” of senators that “should meet with the president sometime in the next few weeks and eventually even make joint recommendations to the president of nominees that are highly qualified and could get broad, bipartisan support in the Senate.”