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
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. …