GOP Caucus reviews Specter for Judiciary Committee chair

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(Host) Vermont U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy says this could be an important week for the future direction of the United States Supreme Court. The Senate Republican caucus is expected to decide if Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter will become the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee.

Specter’s appointment is strongly opposed by a number of conservative groups and Leahy says the outcome of this battle will be a clear signal about the way that President Bush will deal with anticipated vacancies on the Supreme Court.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) According to the seniority rules of the Senate, Specter is next in line to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But the appointment is in jeopardy because of statements that Specter has made concerning the abortion views of any future nominee to the court. Specter, who is pro choice, said, “When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, to overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely.”

A number of conservative groups, including the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition, have urged the GOP Caucus to reject Specter’s nomination and they’ve schedule a number of pray-ins at the Capital this week.

Leahy, who’s the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary committee, says he’s not surprised by the intensity of the controversy surrounding Specter:

(Leahy) “You have a small segment of the Republican Party – especially some of the ultra right in the religious way, in the Bob Jones University type of people – who think that they now own the presidency. And they’ll determine what they’re going to do and the idea of having any Republican who might be, act independent is a threat to them. Well I think independence in the United States Senate is not a threat. It’s a boon to America.”

(Kinzel) Although the GOP caucus won’t take a formal vote on Specter’s nomination until new members have been sworn into office in January, Leahy says Specter will be in big trouble if GOP leaders don’t support his nomination at party meetings this week:

(Leahy) “If they decide that would not be good news for Senator Specter because it allows these right wing talk show people to continue to beat up on him.”

(Kinzel) If conservatives succeed in denying Specter the chairmanship of the Judiciary committee, Leahy is concerned that these groups will have a lot of influence when the president has a chance to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. That’s something that could happen in the next few months:

(Leahy) “The people in America have to look and say on these major issues, we have a Supreme Court we can trust. We have a Supreme Court we have faith in. May not always agree with the decision but we have faith in them. And if you have a Supreme Court that looks like it’s supposed to be a wing of the Republican Party – and in the same way if it was a wing of the Democratic Party – I don’t think you’re going to find the kind of allegiance to their decisions that a country as diverse as ours needs to have.”

(Kinzel) Senate majority leader Bill Frist is not endorsing Specter’s nomination at this time. Over the weekend, Frist said Specter had yet to make persuasive case to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But Frist says Specter will have an opportunity to present his views to the Republican caucus this week.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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