Kudos, So Far, for Helmsman of Roberts Hearings ; Hope Runs High That, under Sen. Arlen Specter, Next Week's Proceedings on High Court Nominee Will Be Fair

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When the Senate Judiciary Committee convenes its first hearing in 11 years for a US Supreme Court nominee, the senator presiding over the mega-event takes on the assignment of a lifetime - and colleagues on both sides of the aisle say he appears to have the fortitude and experience to manage it.

After all, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has prevailed over skeptics in his own party to ascend to the head of this high- profile committee, not to mention surviving a tough reelection and not one, not two, but three diagnoses of a terminal illness.

The former Pennsylvania prosecutor, who has participated in the confirmation hearings of all but one sitting Supreme Court justice, is ready for "opening day" next Tuesday, his aides say.

"The No. 1 thing to understand is that no one gets a free pass with Arlen Specter," says spokesman Bill Reynolds. "He takes his role as chairman, as a neutral arbitrator, very seriously."

Early on, Senator Specter signalled nominee John Roberts, now serving on the Fourth Circuit US Court of Appeals in Washington, to expect hearings that are fair, thorough, and wide-ranging. The senator, however, has not backed calls from Democrats and outside groups for the release of Judge Roberts's memos from his days as deputy US solicitor general from 1989 to 1993.

Famously independent, Specter has alienated both ends of the political spectrum during previous Supreme Court nomination fights. His 1987 vote against Robert Bork, a President Reagan nominee, outraged conservatives. Later, his grilling of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas hearings angered so many women and independent voters that it nearly cost him reelection in 1992.

In the run-up to Tuesday's hearing on Roberts's nomination, the senator is being commended by both sides - and by many outside groups - for his commitment to a fair, deliberative process.

"Specter wants to hold hearings that will withstand the test of time, not [be] someone who wants to carry an ideological point to an extreme," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "He will be very receptive to deep, probing questions from Democratic colleagues. The hearings might get testy, but it would have been a bloodletting with a different chair."

When Republicans needed to replace the last chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee after the 2004 election, "neutral" wasn't in the job description. Ever since the bitter Bork fight, the Judiciary panel has been ground zero for partisan gridlock in the Senate.

Although long-time GOP senators favored him for the chairmanship, Specter had to lobby hard to get it. Conservatives wanted a tough party loyalist who would fight for President Bush's nominees, and Specter's party unity scores on key votes often dropped below 50 percent, according to Congressional Quarterly rankings. He has clashed with the Bush White House over tax cuts, the Patriot Act, education funding, and, most recently, limits on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Specter is also the only Republican on the panel who supports abortion rights. …