Friday, January 7, 2005

New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter yesterday raised the gavel with a grin and opened his first hearing by allowing more criticism of the Bush administration than his predecessor and by questioning some of the Patriot Act’s police powers.

With his questions and comments, the Pennsylvania Republican proclaimed his independence and said he expected the same from Alberto Gonzales, President Bush’s nominee to be attorney general.

“While Judge Gonzales is the appointee of the president … he’s representing the people of the United States, a key distinction which I’m pleased to say in advance that Judge Gonzales has noted in the statement which he has submitted,” Mr. Specter said.

Mr. Specter traveled a bruising path to the chairman’s seat. He almost lost his claim to it in the fall when he said just after Mr. Bush won re-election that pro-life judges might not win Senate confirmation. Administration officials were displeased, and conservatives flooded Republican Senate offices in protest.

A major damage-control effort by Mr. Specter helped win over Republican colleagues, who chose him to succeed Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. The Senate yesterday officially signed off on the change.

Mr. Specter wore a bandage on his nose from the removal of precancerous tissue but was in good humor, accepting congratulations from numerous senators during the hearing.

He permitted multiple rounds of questions — and criticism for the White House — from senators of both parties, while Mr. Hatch had usually allowed only one round at such hearings.

Mr. Specter also agreed to let two law school professors and a human rights advocate testify against Mr. Gonzales.

He questioned extending some of the police powers in the Patriot Act passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks, particularly language requiring judges to issue warrants without making police or prosecutors justify them.

“Why can’t we have that traditional probable cause requirement on the obtaining of those records?” asked Mr. Specter. The law comes up for renewal by Congress this year.

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