Sen. Arlen Specter brings more than just experience in leading the Senate’s scrutiny of a Supreme Court nominee.
As a moderate Republican, Specter keenly understands the meaning of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s departure from the closely divided court. As a cancer patient, he knows too well the agony Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, battling thyroid cancer, must be feeling about whether to stay on the bench.
The fact that Specter is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee makes his role even more pivotal.
“I have been in some eight Supreme Court confirmation hearings. … I’ve had a fair amount of experience, and I’ve been in the Senate for some highly controversial ones, and I’m ready,” the 75-year-old Pennsylvania senator said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
At stake in the selection of a successor to O’Connor is the future direction of the Supreme Court, marked in recent years by narrow rulings on contentious issues such as abortion, gay rights and even the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Specter’s actions could test his party allegiance and ultimately shape his political legacy.
Prickly and intellectual, Specter’s sharp political analysis nearly cost him the chairmanship that he coveted after years on the Judiciary Committee.
Shortly after his election to a fifth term, Specter angered conservatives long suspicious of him by warning a just re-elected President Bush that anti-abortion judges would have a difficult time winning Senate confirmation, given Democratic opposition.
Social conservatives demanded that Senate GOP leaders deny Specter the chairmanship. Only his extraordinary public pledge to give Bush’s nominees quick hearings and early votes, regardless of their views on abortion, spared Specter the ignominy of a chairmanship denied.
Troy Newman, president of anti-abortion Operation Rescue, said he thinks the compromise means Specter will let a nominee get through the committee even if the individual opposes abortion.
“We trust he will keep his word, he’ll bring these nominations up for a vote and get it moving,” Newman said. “That’s what our understanding was, those were the promises made to the conservative Republican caucus.”
The deal has stirred liberals’ fears that Specter will not work to block an anti-abortion rights nominee from securing a seat on the Supreme Court.
“As someone who in the past has been a champion of individual rights and liberties and civil rights, everyone is waiting to see whether he will allow party loyalty to trump four decades of civil rights law,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women.
Through the years, Specter, who has generally supported abortion rights, has won the backing of several women’s groups. Yet, they’ve never forgotten his grilling of Anita Hill, who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation for Supreme Court justice in 1991.
The former Philadelphia district attorney accused Hill of perjury, words that still echo for many women.
This was the same Specter who in 1987 sided with Democrats to torpedo the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork, angering those on the right. Last year, when Specter faced a conservative opponent in the Republican primary, Bork campaigned for former Rep. Pat Toomey.
“One of my colleagues once said I had the keen capability to alienate the entire electorate in just two votes,” Specter said in a recent speech to the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease earlier this year, Specter has used humor to blunt the shock of his image. Bald from chemotherapy, he starts his speeches these days with a joke about his appearance: “I look in the mirror and I don’t know who I am. I’m a victim of identity theft.”
At public hearings, he drinks Gatorade and occasionally pats his face with tissue. He undergoes chemotherapy in Philadelphia on Fridays to avoid missing work, and sometimes leaves hearings early on Thursdays to make his appointments.
He maintains he is strong and that doctors expect him to recover.
“The best thing I can say about him is he’s the same irrational, difficult, ornery person that he always was,” joked Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, who worked as an assistant district attorney under Specter. “Behind the tough exterior is a really tough person.”
Since the cancer announcement, Rendell said he has seen Specter play squash at the Philadelphia gym where they both work out.
Specter also been a tireless advocate of embryonic stem cell research, holding himself up as an example of a cancer patient who could benefit from the research’s potential. He chastised Bush for vowing to veto any change in his restrictions on funding the research.
He was one of four Republican senators to remain publicly uncommitted on whether they would side with Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who led the effort to stop Democrats from using the filibuster against judicial nominations.
Specter alluded to the polarization in Washington during his speech.
“In the United States Senate, it’s heresy, I mean rank heresy, to say you are elected United States senator and you ought to recognize your independence and vote your conscience,” he said.
On the Net:
A Web profile of Specter, including audio excerpts, is available at: