WASHINGTON – As Congress returns from its election break to wrap up work for the year, a key focus will be on whether moderate Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., should chair the committee that considers President Bush's (search) judicial nominations.
Republicans increased their Senate and House majorities in the Nov. 2 balloting and want to complete the lame-duck session swiftly to clear the path for Bush's second-term initiatives of changes in the tax and Social Security systems and lawsuit limitations.
But before ending the 108th Congress (search), 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 Tuesday will be the efforts of Specter to convince fellow Republicans he deserves to be the next Judiciary Committee (search) chairman. Opposition has arisen to Specter, 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.
Specter has since stressed that he would be a team player if he succeeds the current chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is stepping down under Senate term-limit rules.
Specter told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that 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 impending 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 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 told "Fox News Sunday."
And he said 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 filibusters 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 the 100-member Senate next year, say that would be an intolerable infringement on minority rights.
The main task of Congress when it returns will be approving nine spending bills for the current budget year.
Frist said Bush's plans to overhaul tax laws and Social Security will get top billing in the next Congress convening in early January.
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.