WASHINGTON – President Bush's chief political adviser says he will take Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter's (search) word that the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (search) will not hold up judicial nominees.
In an appearance on "FOX News Sunday," Bush chief political adviser Karl Rove (search) said that "at almost every campaign speech" Bush promised to appoint individuals "who had no personal agenda, no political agenda, but would strictly observe the Constitution."
"He views judges as the impartial umpires," Rove said. "They shouldn't be activist legislators who just happen to wear robes and never face election, ... [who] feel free to pursue their own personal or political agenda."
Rove said Bush made such pledges to constituents during campaign stops that included The Keystone State events with Specter. Rove said that Specter told the president during those stops that he will "make certain your nominees receive a hearing, I’ll make certain that they receive a vote and the appellate nominees will be brought to the floor.
"Senator Specter's a man of his word. We'll take him at his word," Rove said.
Specter, who just earned a fifth Senate term, repeated that word Sunday during a network news show in which he pledged to give the president's nominees a fair hearing even if they oppose abortion rights.
"The fact is that I have supported all of President Bush's nominees in committee and on the floor. I have never applied a litmus test," Specter said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"Although I am pro-choice, I have supported many pro-life nominees," he added.
Specter sparked a firestorm last week, when he suggested that Bush's anti-abortion nominees to the Supreme Court would be unlikely to be confirmed by the Senate.
"The president is well aware of what happened when a bunch of his nominees were sent up, with the filibuster," he said last Wednesday, referring to the success of Senate Democrats in the past four years to prevent the president's nominees from being confirmed to the bench. "And I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning."
The lawmaker quickly clarified his comments the next day after Republican leaders called on him to explain his remarks. Specter said he voted to confirm four of the five conservative justices on the court, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy, and he led the fight to confirm Justice Clarence Thomas.
On Sunday, Specter added that he was merely stating political fact in his original comment — Republicans don't have the votes to stop procedural blocks that Democrats may try to launch against the president's nominees.
At stake for Specter is the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. Since current committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah has served his full term as chairman, the next most senior member to inherit the gavel is Specter. But whether he becomes Judiciary Committee chairman is still up in the air. GOP leadership aides say Specter is "not out of the woods yet."
James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and members of anti-abortion groups such as Concerned Women for America and the National Right to Life Committee, add that Specter is "a problem" and his chairmanship "must be derailed" because of his abortion rights stance.
"Senator Specter is a big-time problem for us, and we're very concerned about him," Dobson said. "There are many, many members of that committee that are more qualified and less of a problem than Senator Specter."
The groups have bombarded the office of GOP Judiciary Committee members with faxes, phone calls and e-mails. One Senate Judiciary Committee member's aide said that on Friday alone, his boss received 1,000 e-mails and over 300 phone calls.
Specter noted Sunday that Dobson and his supporters campaigned against the senator in Pennsylvania's Republican primary in which Specter faced abortion rights foe Rep. Pat Toomey.
But the outpouring of opposition from a constituency that is credited with the Republicans' recent electoral success is causing many conservative senators and senator-elects to rethink who should head what is considered the most ideological committee in the Senate.
Fresh off his historic defeat of Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Republican Senator-elect John Thune said new members are concerned about Specter’s remarks because they were elected on the expectation that they would confirm "good judges."
"We spoke about the importance of judges and having judges on the bench who are going to be judges who interpret and apply the Constitution, the laws of the United States," Thune said Sunday on "Meet the Press."
Though Thune did recognize that Specter "said that he had misspoke," the senator-elect said he’d wait to talk with GOP leaders before deciding whether to vote for Specter as chairman. Specter’s GOP colleagues on the Judiciary Committee vote on their next chairman before sending their recommendation to the entire Republican Senate Caucus for affirmation.
The concern about Specter's intentions has been intensified by the fact that Bush could have the opportunity to nominate judges to fill up to three vacancies to the nation's highest court. Four of the current justices are over age 70, and Rehnquist, 80, has been facing a slower recovery than expected after recent surgery and therapy to combat thyroid cancer.
While Republicans earned four seats in the Senate after last week's election, the GOP still holds a 55-44-1 majority, not enough to pass the 60-vote threshold Republicans need to avoid a filibuster of his candidates.
Senate Democrats have managed in the past to stop six of the president's nominees to the federal bench, but Republicans pleased with their numbers on Tuesday said they may consider bringing back some of those candidates. Specter is a loyal Republican and was endorsed by the president in a tight Pennsylvania GOP primary. He won re-election Tuesday with an 11-point margin, winning over many ticket-splitting Democrats in a state that went for John Kerry.
On top of the judicial nominees, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Specter will also be responsible for handling legislation that would amend the Constitution to identify marriage as a union only between one man and one woman. Rove said Bush "absolutely" will push for that amendment in his second term even though it failed in the current Congress.
Rove added that the president believes states can deal with the issue of civil unions between gay people, an arrangement that if enacted would grant same-sex partners most or all the rights available to married couples.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.