Specter Indicates He’ll Be His Own Man as Judiciary Chairman

Times Staff Writer

The week after learning he has cancer and three months after placating conservative critics to achieve his position as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter sent a message Thursday: The old Specter is back.

“I expect to be able to do the job,” the Republican from Pennsylvania said at a news conference partly designed to show that his battle with Hodgkin’s disease would not hinder his performance.

But he also made it clear that on one of the Senate’s key disputes -- the fight over nominees to the federal bench -- he is unwilling to embrace a controversial tactic being pushed by his party’s conservative wing.

Conservatives have been rankled for years by Specter, who supports abortion rights and was forced in November to backpedal after suggesting that President Bush should not nominate antiabortion judges to the Supreme Court. Specter’s comment raised the possibility he might not gain the Judiciary chairmanship. He quickly pulled back on his statement and was awarded the post.

But that Specter bore little resemblance to the Specter who took the stage in the Senate press gallery on Thursday.


Unbowed and combative, he vowed to cut his own swath through the tangle of issues on the committee’s docket: confirming judges, enforcing court judgments against antiabortion protesters and creating a trust fund for asbestos victims.

On all those issues, Specter proposed what amounts to a radical idea in Washington these days: compromise.

In particular, he warned his Republican colleagues not to resort to the so-called “nuclear option” -- a procedural move that would overturn precedent to deny Democrats the right to filibuster judicial nominees they oppose.

“I’m going to exercise every last ounce of my energy to solve this problem without the nuclear option,” said Specter, who started chemotherapy during the past week. “If we have a nuclear option, the Senate will be in turmoil, and the Judiciary Committee will be hell.”

In a soft and slightly raspy voice, leavening his remarks with one-liners, Specter chided his colleagues on both sides of the aisle for helping escalate the conflict over federal judges, starting in the Reagan administration.

“Each side has ratcheted it up, ratcheted it up, ratcheted it up, until you have a situation today where it might accurately be characterized as no one wants to back down and no one wants to lose face,” Specter said. “So the question is, where do we go from here?”

Specter offered his own plan. He said he has scheduled hearings on William G. Myers III, one of 10 judicial candidates filibustered by Democrats whom Bush resubmitted to the Senate last week. Myers, a former lobbyist for ranchers and mining interests, is nominated to serve on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Specter said he believed Myers has more support among Democrats than the other nominees, so that’s where he would start to try to break the logjam. Hearings would then follow on Terrence W. Boyle, nominated for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

Depending on how those nominations proceed, Specter said he would decide later whether to press for the others.

He noted that he would adopt an argument promoted by a Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York: that there should be a variety of political viewpoints among federal judges on the same bench.

“The 9th circuit is a very liberal circuit. I think that William Myers would give some balance to the 9th Circuit, and that is going to be one of the arguments that I am going to make,” Specter said.

There was no immediate response to Specter’s comments from his conservative colleagues.

Minutes after Specter left the Senate gallery, Schumer -- often a point man for Democrats on judicial issues -- ascended the same stage and called Specter’s comments “promising.”

However, Schumer also denounced Myers’ record on environmental issues as “off the deep end” and said he does not think Specter yet has the votes to get him confirmed.

“We could come to an agreement [on Myers], but it’s got to be a little bit of a two-way street,” Schumer said.

On other issues, Specter said he would press ahead to resolve a long-standing impasse over legislation to create a trust fund for asbestos victims, scheduling a committee meeting to debate the bill next week.

And he appeared to be groping toward compromise on upcoming bankruptcy legislation. He said that Schumer was right to propose an amendment that would prevent antiabortion protesters from using bankruptcy protection to escape paying court fines but suggested that it might be possible to address that concern without an explicit provision singling them out.

Schumer did not respond to that feeler, but did indicate that many Democrats, himself included, were prepared to deal.

“I am so delighted that he’s feisty and fighting and thoughtful and being the Arlen Specter we’ve all come to know and respect in the Senate,” Schumer said.

“Sen. Specter is back, and there’s a sigh of relief collectively breathed in the Senate.”