Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the moderate Republican in line to head the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged Sunday to move quickly on White House judicial nominees if he becomes chairman.
And White House political advisor Karl Rove said he believed that President Bush’s nominees would receive prompt and fair hearings if Specter were chairman.
Still, some conservative activists complained about Specter’s views on abortion, urging Senate Republicans not to confirm him.
In a news conference Wednesday, the day after the election, Specter predicted that judicial nominees who opposed abortion rights would have a difficult time getting Senate approval. His comments produced an outcry from the right.
Attempting to tamp down the controversy, Specter told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he would not use a nominee’s views on abortion as a “litmus test.”
“My record is pretty plain that, although I am pro-choice, I have supported many pro-life nominees,” he said.
He cited his support for Supreme Court nominees Clarence Thomas in 1991 and Anthony M. Kennedy in 1986 and the elevation in 1986 of Justice William H. Rehnquist to the post of chief justice even though Rehnquist had voted against Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that upheld a woman’s right to choose abortion.
Specter said his comments last week referred to the fact that, despite winning four more Senate seats, the GOP cannot by itself block a Democratic filibuster on nominations. Sixty votes are needed to end a filibuster; the Republicans will have 55 seats in the next Senate.
Specter also noted that “I have supported all of President Bush’s nominees in committee and on the floor.”
Still, his remarks Wednesday continued to inflame conservative and anti-abortion activists. Some read his statements as a warning to the president not to nominate judges who opposed Roe vs. Wade, and they began calling Specter a turncoat who must be blocked from getting the coveted chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee.
On Sunday, James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, a Christian-based advocacy group, said on ABC’s “This Week” that Specter was “a big-time problem for us.... He must be derailed.”
Normally, committee chairmanships are determined by seniority. Party rules prohibit Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah from another term as Judiciary Committee chairman, and Specter -- the only Republican on the panel who favors abortion rights -- is next in line.
Appearing on two Sunday talk shows, Rove said he was reluctant to interfere with Capitol Hill leadership deliberations, noting on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we wouldn’t like [senators] to decide who are the staff assistants at the White House.”
But he also said that Specter had assured the president that he would make certain Bush’s nominees received a prompt hearing and a vote by the full Senate.
“Sen. Specter’s a man of his word,” Rove said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We’ll take him at his word.”
The White House has been emphasizing the need to reach out to political opponents to get things done in Washington, even as Republicans increased their majorities in the House and the Senate.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), discussing the possibility of bipartisan support for several aspects of the president’s second-term agenda, told “Fox News Sunday” that “there are a lot of good people on both sides that really want to work together.”
But wedge issues continued to dominate the airwaves. On the same show, Rove offered a strong endorsement of the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
“Without the protection of that amendment, we are at the mercy of activist federal judges or activist state judges who could, without the involvement of the people, determine ... that marriage no longer consists of a union between a man and a woman,” Rove said.
Rove indicated the president “absolutely” would push for the amendment again.
The Judiciary Committee is seen as key to the conservative agenda. It held hearings on the marriage amendment, and it plays a central role in confirming federal judicial nominees. Rehnquist, who was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, is likely to retire soon.
Bush and prominent conservatives, including Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), backed Specter’s reelection, even when he faced a primary challenge from Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, a conservative.
Asked about blocking Specter for the chairmanship, two other Republican senators who appeared on “Face the Nation” -- Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine -- expressed support for their colleague.
However, two other Republicans interviewed in recent days were a bit more equivocal. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Associated Press last week that he wanted to “sit down and discuss with [Specter] how things are going to work.” And on Sunday, John Thune, the senator-elect from South Dakota, declined to commit to supporting Specter for the chairmanship.
“There will be some questions asked by those of us who are coming in as freshmen who ran our campaigns and built around that very central theme that we need to have good judges on the bench,” Thune told ABC’s “This Week.”
Specter is no stranger to controversy, but has succeeded in Pennsylvania by promoting his moderate views. Although he opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, he incurred the wrath of some groups for his questioning of Anita Hill during the hearings on Thomas’ nomination.
This independent streak has played well. He easily won reelection to a fifth Senate term last Tuesday, even though Democrat John F. Kerry carried the state.