Tradition-Bound Senators Rally Around Specter

Times Staff Writers

As Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania arrived Tuesday on Capitol Hill, the challenge he faced was all around.

Antiabortion demonstrators had a prayer vigil outside Senate office buildings to rally opposition to his long-cherished dream of heading the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Inside, conservative groups bombarded senators with phone calls and e-mails bearing a single message: Don’t let Specter take charge of the committee with authority over President Bush’s judicial appointments.


But Specter had one of Washington’s most powerful forces on his side -- the Senate’s tradition of seniority. And tradition clearly helped his cause.

Although the fight will not be resolved until early next year, when the new Senate chooses its committee chairmen, Specter appeared to advance his case Tuesday.

After a meeting with all Judiciary Committee Republicans, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who must step down because of term limits, said: “I’m for Arlen. Nobody in the meeting was against Arlen.”

The battle has already laid bare the powerful forces roiling the Republican Party.

Conservatives who helped reelect Bush are demanding that the party respect their wishes in legislation and appointments, while a diminished band of more moderate Republicans say they too are crucial to the party’s electoral dominance.

The committee chairmanship is particularly important because the advanced age of many of the Supreme Court justices makes it likely that Bush will have an opportunity to appoint at least one justice in his new term.

Specter, the Judiciary Committee’s most senior Republican after Hatch, came under attack from conservatives for remarking after the Nov. 2 elections that Democrats would make it difficult for Bush to win Senate confirmation for antiabortion judgeship nominees.

Hatch said Specter “handled himself well” during what Hatch indicated was tough questioning from Republican senators.

Specter, Hatch said, “is highly respected by our members, as he should be. I believe he’ll be a great chairman.... I expect him to have the support of the committee.”

Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), described Tuesday’s meetings as “constructive” but would not say whether Frist would support Specter for the chairmanship.

Specter has worked furiously to reassure his colleagues that he would be a fair chairman. In Tuesday’s meetings, he said he had been a team player who supported all of Bush’s judicial appointees.

“He crossed the first hurdle, and it was a significant one,” said a Senate Republican aide.

Frist told “Fox News Sunday” that he expected Judiciary Committee chairmen to understand that “they are no longer responsible just to themselves or just to their constituents back at home but, as chairman of the committee, they’re responsible to the feelings, the wishes, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of that committee.”

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), a Judiciary Committee member, said he believed that Specter would issue a statement “within the next 24 hours.”

Asked whether he supported Specter, Craig said, “I’m going to see the statement,” which he said Specter was working on with the Republican leadership.

Specter, asked by reporters to confirm that he would issue a statement, said, “I’ve issued quite a few public statements,” and he added that he would be issuing more.

“With Hatch beside me,” Specter said, “I’m a little less unconfident” of overcoming opposition to his winning the committee chairmanship he has long coveted.

Specter expects to address all Senate Republicans when they meet today.

A number of his colleagues expressed support.

“He’ll be chairman of the committee, as he should be,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who does not serve on the judiciary panel but will vote in January on Senate committee chairmanships.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a Judiciary Committee member, said he supported Specter, who he said had reassured him that he would back the president’s judicial nominees.

Times staff writers Janet Hook and Emma Schwartz contributed to this report.