WASHINGTON – Sen. Arlen Specter's (search) move up to chairman of the committee that handles the president's judicial nominees is on the line this week when lawmakers return to the Capitol to clean up the unfinished work of this Congress and prepare for the next one.
Following their election triumphs, Republicans are eager to wrap up the lame-duck session as quickly as possible, to clear the path for President Bush's second-term initiatives of tax simplification, Social Security (search) overhaul and lawsuit limitations.
But before ending the 108th Congress, lawmakers must deal with spending bills covering most federal domestic programs for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, vote to raise the government's borrowing limit on the national debt and confront a stalemate on legislation to reshape intelligence agencies.
One focus when the Senate reconvenes on Tuesday will be the efforts of Specter, R-Pa., to convince his fellow Republicans that he deserves to be the next Judiciary Committee chairman. Opposition has arisen to the moderate Republican, who supports abortion rights, as a result of his postelection statements that nominees with anti-abortion views would have a tough time winning Senate confirmation.
He has since stressed that he would be a team player if he succeeds the current chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah, who must step down because of GOP-imposed term limits.
Specter told ABC's "This Week" he had never applied a litmus test to Supreme Court nominees and had voted for anti-abortion judges. "I have supported all of President Bush's nominees in the committee and on the floor, and those go right to the heart of factual matters of concern," he said.
The issue has taken on some urgency because of the possibility of openings on the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, is seriously ill with thyroid cancer, and three other justices have had cancer. The average age of the nine court members is 70. Speculation on a Supreme Court retirement has grown in part because there has been no vacancy in more than 10 years.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Specter must still make his case to Republican senators.
A chairman, Frist said on "FOX News Sunday," is responsible to "the feelings, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of that committee," which overwhelmingly opposes abortion.
Frist added that he would expect the committee's head "to have a strong predisposition" to supporting the president's nominee in committee and the full Senate.
Frist also said he was determined to prevent Democrats from using the filibuster to block judicial nominations, as they did 10 times in the current Congress.
One possibility, he said, is what many call the "nuclear option," where a filibuster, which needs 60 votes to be broken, no longer will be allowed for judicial confirmations.
Democrats, who lost four seats in the election and will have 44 seats with one independent ally in 2005, say that would be an intolerable infringement on minority rights.
"That would end any hope of comity" in the coming Senate, said one Judiciary Committee member, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was also worried about undercutting minority rights. "If I believed Republicans would be in the majority forever, I'd be more favorably disposed," McCain said.
The main task of Congress when it returns will be approving nine spending bills for the 2005 budget year that began Oct. 1.
Frist said Bush's plans to overhaul tax laws and Social Security will get top billing in the next Congress.
The Senate might make another attempt to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which failed this year, he said.
"If activist judges start to tear it (the institution of marriage) down, we're going to bring it back to the floor quicker," Frist said.
Frist, a heart surgeon, said he supported the three-year-old Bush policy of restricting federal funds for stem cell research involving the destruction of human embryos. But, he said, that while the moral issue has not changed, as science advances over time "clearly we'll come back and review that policy."