WASHINGTON -- Before Sen. Arlen Specter stood beside other Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday and pledged support as their chairman for any judge that President Bush nominates, he had been scared stiff by his colleagues and by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
It was close. As late as Wednesday night, his statement of party loyalty was rejected by Frist as inadequate. When the Judiciary Republicans caucused Thursday, two of them were not yet on board for Specter. To achieve the chairmanship that he has coveted for years, Specter had to promise he would seriously dilute the "independence" he brags about. The achievement suggests that Frist is getting the hang of being leader after a rocky first year in the job.
That offers hope for an end to recent Democratic success in using the filibuster to block every Bush judicial nomination deemed objectionable to liberal pressure groups. The stakes grow higher with the probability of Supreme Court nominations. But Frist will have four additional Republican senators, thanks to this year's elections, and enhanced confidence, thanks to the way he handled the Specter affair.
Specter endangered his own succession to the Judiciary chairmanship the day after he was easily re-elected to a fifth term from Pennsylvania, a state that rejected Bush in the same election. Unable to contain his arrogance and exuberance, he blundered into warning the president not to name Supreme Court justices who oppose the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.
That triggered a massive campaign by conservative activists to stop Specter from becoming chairman. Frist quickly raised the bar for Specter. It would not be enough, as Specter promised following his post-election outburst, to guarantee that judicial nominees get out of his committee. "I would expect Chairman Specter to go one step further," the majority leader said on Fox News Sunday Nov. 14. He must have a "strong predisposition" toward supporting nominees. The implication: Specter better take that course, or he would not become chairman.
Without a doubt, Frist could muster the votes to block Specter as chairman and name a more reliable Republican (such as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona). But that would leave a wounded, probably vengeful Specter. He might well cross the aisle to the Democratic side, perhaps forcing a change in committee ratios of the parties. Even if he remained in the Republican caucus, Specter would still be on the Judiciary Committee and could be counted on to raise havoc with Bush's nominees.
What to do with Specter, then, was explained to me by one of the committee's most politically astute Republicans, who asked that his name not be used: "We have to scare the hell out of Arlen before he gets to be chairman -- scare him so badly he will act properly as chairman."
Frist told Specter he must produce a written statement pledging his cooperation as chairman. What he wrote pledged only that judicial nominations would get out of his committee. That was not good enough, Frist told him Wednesday night. He would have to pledge support for Bush judges and declare himself open to a rules change blocking filibusters of judicial nominations. Specter must have been frightened. He wrote a new four-paragraph statement incorporating the majority leader's demands.
Even so, when Judiciary Committee Republicans assembled behind closed doors Thursday, two conservative Southerners still had their doubts about him: Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and John Cornyn of Texas believe voters across the country on Nov. 2 voted for an end to the tactics that have blocked action in the Senate. Although he never mentions it, Sessions has to remember that Specter helped block his nomination to the appellate court before he ran for the Senate.
In the Thursday meeting, Specter convinced Sessions, Cornyn and everybody else that he meant what he said in his statement. The senator who had told me it was necessary to really scare Specter suddenly contracted amnesia about that tactic. There was no desire to embarrass a senior senator. But everybody will be watching carefully next year to see whether Arlen Specter was frightened sufficiently.