Specter Gains GOP Support to Chair Judiciary Panel

Defying the demands of religious conservatives, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans today unanimously endorsed Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania moderate, as their next chairman after extracting a public promise from him not to hinder President Bush's legislative agenda.

Religious conservatives had urged Republican lawmakers to bar Specter from the powerful chairmanship, arguing that because he supported abortion rights, he could not be trusted to support Bush's judicial nominees if they opposed abortion.

Specter had observed during a post-election press conference that Democratic filibusters made it unlikely that the Senate would confirm any judicial nominee who opposed abortion.

"I have assured the president that I would give his nominees quick committee hearings and early committee votes," he told reporters. On federal nominees, Specter added, "I have no reason to believe that I'll be unable to support any individual President Bush finds worthy."

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

Religious conservatives said his previous remarks were a slap in the face to the president and to those who voted for him in the belief that he would name abortion opponents to the federal judiciary.

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 in the end, neither the thousands of phone calls nor warnings of political retaliation against any Republican who voted for him to be chairman could overcome the power of Senate seniority.

"The fact is that he has supported every single nominee," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). "And to me, you look at a person's record. You look at what they have done."

In a statement, Specter repeated pledges he has made over the past two weeks, saying he would foil Democrats if they attempt to block Bush's nominees. and support.

"I have no reason to believe that I'll be unable to support any individual President Bush finds worthy" of the federal bench, Specter told reporters.

While Specter was endorsed by all nine Judiciary Republicans, an official vote will be held in January and could be appealed to the GOP caucus, a move that seemed unlikely.

"We've been in the trenches, and Arlen Specter has stood side by side and toe to toe with all of us in opposition to the antics coming from the other side," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "He has been 100 percent supportive of the president's judicial nominees. You cannot ask for any more of a chairman than to be that way."

Times wire services contributed to this report.