WASHINGTON - Angry conservatives flooded Senate phone and fax lines yesterday demanding that Republicans prevent Sen. Arlen Specter from presiding over the Judiciary Committee after his comments predicting that strongly anti-abortion judicial nominees might be rejected in the Senate.
Republican lawmakers and top Senate aides, speaking privately for the most part, said the uproar from the right was becoming an impediment for Specter, a Pennsylvania lawmaker who has coveted the chairmanship. They said that while it was likely he would still get the post, it was no longer a certainty.
"He is not out of the woods," said one Senate aide who is closely monitoring developments on the Judiciary Committee, echoing a sentiment expressed by Republican senators as well as other party officials.
Most of those Republicans said they initially believed that Specter's subsequent clarification - that he did not mean his remarks as a warning to Bush not to nominate to the Supreme Court a judge who would be inclined to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision - would protect him.
But they said continuing resistance to his taking the chairmanship of the committee that examines judicial nominees was being fanned by conservative talk-radio hosts and activist groups outraged over his comments in the immediate aftermath of resounding Republican wins Tuesday night.
Lawmakers and aides said Specter's comments have touched a nerve because Democratic resistance to Bush's judicial nominees was an important element of the Republican campaigns and a factor in the defeat of Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, in South Dakota. In addition, the expanded Republican Senate majority is strongly anti-abortion.
The outpouring illustrated how the party's conservative wing has been emboldened by the White House win and the strengthening of Republican majorities in Congress, potentially raising new hazards for moderate Republicans who might want to break from the president or House and Senate leadership on major issues.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill said the attempt to quickly exert that influence could work in Specter's favor because members of the Senate do not necessarily want their first action after an energizing election to be jettisoning Specter under pressure from outside groups.
"We need to show some discipline and not overreact," one said.
The initial comments by Specter on Wednesday, at a news conference, that it would be unlikely that staunch opponents of abortion could be confirmed for the Supreme Court, came after Bush campaigned hard for Specter, a backer of abortion rights, to win a primary challenge against a conservative lawmaker and abortion opponent.
But in subsequent interviews, he said that his remark at the news conference merely stated an obvious political fact: that just as Democrats had filibustered judicial nominees before, they could be expected to do the same again, and that Bush was aware of this himself.
"I did not warn the president about anything and was very respectful of his constitutional authority," he said in a written statement Thursday, adding that he would apply no "litmus test" on abortion.
In interviews this week, Specter said he did not believe his chairmanship was in jeopardy. "I voted for every one of President Bush's nominees in the committee and on the floor, every last one of them," Specter said. He has been contacting his colleagues in an effort to calm the situation.
Specter's status as potential chairman was the subject of discussion Thursday during a telephone conference call among Senate Republican leaders, who expressed concern about his remarks. Republicans will return to the Capitol later this month to begin reorganizing for the coming session and could address the matter then.
The chairmanship is subject to a vote by the members of the committee and ratification by all Senate Republicans, who almost always follow seniority in deciding committee leadership. The current chairman, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, is reaching his six-year term limit; Specter is next in line, with Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona behind him.
Given their new 55-45 majority, Republicans also want to increase their numerical advantage on the Judiciary Committee, giving them more leverage to move judicial nominees. With that power, some Republicans said it would be counterproductive to have a chairman who might balk at some of the president's choices.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the panel, said he expected "healthy discussion" about Specter's comments.