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Waiting For Specter's Next Move

This column was written by Terence Samuel.
Washington is a city in waiting -- waiting to see what happens with and to Karl Rove, with John Bolton, with Judy Miller; waiting to see whose military bases get closed and whose doesn't; waiting for Scott McClellan to simply lose it; and, most of all, waiting to see whom George W. Bush wants to put on the Supreme Court.

And when he does choose, the next big wait will be to see what Arlen Specter does and says, because Specter is going to matter. And rest assured that the five-term senator from Pennsylvania is going to do or say something that will leave huge swaths of people openly pissed off and deeply disappointed. Why? Because that is what Arlen Specter does. He strides into the appropriately huge national moment and does something completely unexpected, something that boggles the mind.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter is charged with overseeing the confirmation of one or two, maybe three Supreme Court nominations from the Bush White House. Having coveted the chairmanship for a long time and almost having lost it because conservatives so distrust his moderate -- some say quirky and unpredictable -- politics, Specter is at his zenith. And it is worth noting that as he takes on this role of shaping the future of the Supreme Court, he is six weeks older than Sandra Day O'Connor, who, after 24 years on the Court, decided it was time to ride off into the sunset.

Last year, after 24 years in the Senate, Specter had to run a fierce primary campaign to retain his seat and become the first person ever elected five times to the Senate from Pennsylvania. Specter has been on the public stage for the last 40 years, and has etched himself into the national consciousness time and time again in the oddest ways. And there is little reason to think he won't be doing the same here again.

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He is, after all, the moderate Republican Jew from Pennsylvania, born in the same Kansas town as Bob Dole, who will face severe pressure from the boisterous and influential fundamentalist Christian wing of the GOP to guide the confirmation process in a way that produces an outcome that that wing likes. He essentially had to promise not to get in the way last January before he assumed the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. But Specter has been dancing to his own tune for a long time.

He was 34 in 1964 when, as a young lawyer on the staff of the Warren Commission, he concluded, to the ongoing dismay of conspiracy theorists everywhere, that it was a single bullet that killed John F. Kennedy in Dallas. In 1987, he made the everlasting enmity of conservative legions when he voted against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork; he was the only Republican on the Judiciary Committee to do so, and, in so doing, doomed the nomination. Later, he said he almost changed his mind about the Bork vote after he saw a Gregory Peck ad on television slamming Bork. He seemed to reverse course in 1991 with his brutal questioning of Anita Hill, helping to secure a place on the Court for Clarence Thomas, and then came Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998. For the rest of the Senate the options were "guilty" or "not guilty." Clinton was acquitted, but Specter voted "not proven," citing Scottish law as his guide.

Contrariness elevated to high political art.

And as much as he infuriates conservatives, liberals don't warm to him, either.

"When you get right down to it, Specter has never voted against a Bush nominee," says one Democratic activist working the nomination fight. So for the left there is at least the buffer of low expectations. Bush, though, should be nervous, because this is his nomination and his chance at history, and all of it lies in the hands of a man who is constantly on the lookout for chances to prove that he is nobody's boy, and who is willing to kill the baby to makes sure that everybody knows that he is his own man.

Some of Specter's natural strangeness has already begun to emerge. While it quickly became commonplace to bestow endless accolades on O'Connor for her "independence and pragmatism," it took Specter to suggest something that seemingly no one else had considered: that Bush could replace an outgoing Chief Justice William Rehnquist with a retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"She has received so much adulation that a confirmation proceeding would be more like a coronation," Specter said on the CBS News show "Face The Nation,""and she might be willing to stay on for a year or so."

And while he may be the most lawyerly member of the Senate, Specter thinks the High Court could benefit from fewer judges.

"If they had a little more practical experience and didn't work so much within the footnotes and the semicolons," Specter told The Associated Press, "you might have a little different perspective, and I'd like to see that added to the Court."

The initial reaction upon hearing Specter's idea: Is he for real? The answer is yes.

What's more, he seems to be on a mission. Battling Hodgkin's Disease, Specter, who also chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, is busy adding as much money as he can to the National Institutes of Health budget, and is also touting, in defiance of the White House position, federally funded research on embryonic stem-cell research.

In recent days, even the most partisan Democrats have been going out of their way to congratulate the White House for its outreach on O'Connor's replacement, for working so hard to satisfy the advice component of the "advise and consent" clause. Not Specter. He has decided to advise as little as possible now, just in case he does not want to consent as much later.

Just you wait!

Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His column about politics appears each week in the Prospect's online edition.

By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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