A Middle Ground on Arlen Specter

It feels a little funny to type that post title, as I don’t often find myself seeking middle ground. But this is one time when it may be appropriate.
Like Deacon, I’ve been torn on the issue of Sen. Specter ascending to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. We have gotten many emails from readers encouraging us–that’s a polite term–to unload on Specter and campaign against his chairmanship. And I entirely agree that what Specter did, in warning President Bush as to what judges he may or may not appoint, and implicitly threatening to torpedo any who do not meet Specter’s litmus test, was outrageous and unacceptable. Specter’s lack of loyalty would be appalling even if President Bush had not helped to save the Senator’s seat by supporting him in a tough primary fight. Further, I am deeply concerned that Specter as committee chairman can single-handedly reverse what should be a political debacle for the Democrats by joining them in branding the President’s nominees as somehow outside the mainstream.
On the other hand, I think Hugh Hewitt makes a persuasive case that the unintended consequences of attacking Specter and denying him the chairmanship he covets are likely to be worse than allowing him to succeed according to normal rules. The Senate is a place where rules and traditions are very important, and Specter is not alone as a squishy Republican in that chamber. There are at least three or four other Senators whose votes on judicial nominees and other matters will be critical, and who are likely to react adversely if Specter is deposed.
While I don’t have much faith in Specter, it is a fact that he has supported every judicial nomination President Bush has made so far. In that context, it is hard to justify upsetting normal rules to deny him the chairmanship.
Here is my suggestion: Senator Bill Frist wants to run for President in four years. Management of the Senate majority is his job, and he has come in for criticism since he became Majority Leader. If the President’s judicial nominations start going down in flames because Frist can’t keep his caucus together, his Presidential hopes will be badly damaged. So I intend to call and email Senator Frist to express my extreme dismay at Specter’s ill-advised comments; to ask Frist to consider seriously whether Specter can appropriately serve as chairman of the Judiciary Committee after pre-emptively seeking to limit the President’s discretion in appointing judges; and to ask that, should Specter be allowed to become chairman, assurance be given that he will use his best efforts to secure the confirmation of the President’s nominees.
I think the reality is that Specter is going to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The best impact we can have, I think, is to let the party’s leadership in the Senate know how important this issue is to us, and that we intend to hold Frist responsible if the nomination process goes off the rails.
Emails can be sent to Senator Frist here. His office’s phone number is 202-224-3344.
DEACON adds: This is a great suggestion. But I still fear that, whatever guarantees Frist and the White House extract from Specter, the Pennsylvania egoist will do wantever he wants once he takes over as committee chairman. I don’t know the rules on deposing a chairman, but absent physical disability or criminal conduct, it must be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish.
Nonetheless, I’m tending to agree with Hugh Hewitt that Frist and the president should obtain whatever assurances they can, and then let Specter have his chairmanship. Consider a world in which Specter has been denied that post. It would probably look very much like the world we’ve lived in the past two years — a world in which the White House has only about 51 Republican Senators willing to confirm conservative judicial nominees. The Democrats will still be able successfully to filibuster such nominees, and be in a position to claim legitimacy by pointing to the opposition to these nominees of Republicans like Specter, Chafee, and perhaps the Senators from Maine.
Now consider a world in which Specter is Judiciary Committee chairman. More likely than not, that world would be agreeable. Specter likely will support conservative nominees, though maybe not always the first choice, as he has during the past four years and (mostly) before that. The only price would be that Bush might have to appoint some moderate/liberal pals of Specter to the Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Democrats wishing to filibuster Bush’s nominees will have no cover, and only a few Democratic defections will be needed to end the filibuster. Democrats from red states likely will think twice about going to the mat on behalf of People for the American Way and NOW after seeing what happened to Tom Daschle.
And if Specter decides to oppose conservative nominees, we won’t be much worse off if he does this as chairman rather than as spoiler. True, Democrats will have total cover if the Republican head of the Judiciary Committee opposes a conservative nominee. But if I’m right that such nominees can’t be confirmed if Republicans play hard ball with Specter, then little is lost. You can only kill a nominee so dead.

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