Specter is `ready' for court nominee

Chairman: The senator heads the panel that will consider the fate of President Bush's pick.

July 05, 2005|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. Arlen Specter is, by any definition, a survivor.

Brain tumors. Heart surgery. Primaries and general elections, sometimes when the pundits predicted defeat.

And now, Hodgkin's disease, on the eve of the moment he's waited for all his political life - a chance to gavel the Senate Judiciary Committee to order as it considers the nominee to be the next Supreme Court justice.

Specter's head is nearly bald these days. He keeps a tissue close at hand, to dab at his watery eyes and runny nose. They are symptoms of the chemotherapy he receives every other Friday, a regimen that will end this month.

But at 75, the Pennsylvania Republican's will seems strong - and his famously agile legal mind appears raring to go.

"I'm ready," he said last week.

Nobody who knows him doubts it. "He's playing for the ages now, isn't he?" said Philadelphia attorney Arthur Makadon, a longtime friend.

Sen. John W. Warner, who has served with Specter in the Senate for a quarter-century, said he has the highest confidence in his colleague's ability to lead at this crucial time. Warner repeated a Shakespeare quote he had just used to describe the mindset of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: "This above all; to thine own self be true."

It fits Specter, too, the Virginia Republican said.

"He's going to do what's right by the country, and for this nation," Warner said. "Yes, he's got a bit of a physical situation right now, but I don't think it will be any impairment whatsoever."

The son of Jewish immigrants, Specter grew up in the same tiny Kansas town as former Sen. Bob Dole and went to the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School. He was elected Philadelphia's district attorney at age 35 and won a Senate seat in 1980.

When he opens hearings on President Bush's choice for the court this summer, the scene will be a familiar one for Specter: He has been through every Supreme Court confirmation fight since O'Connor's in 1981.

The committee was the setting for two of the most famous moments of Specter's career: his treatment of two Supreme Court nominees - Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991 - which earned him the scorn of activists on both sides.

Conservatives are still angry at his relentless interrogation of Bork and his vote against him. Liberals loathe him for his equally aggressive questioning of Anita Hill, the professor who told the committee that Thomas had sexually harassed her at work a decade earlier.

The flap over Hill nearly cost Specter his seat in 1992; he defeated Democrat Lynn Yeakel by 3 percentage points.

No regrets

Specter said he has no regrets, especially about Bork, whose views on interpreting the Constitution as a literal, unchanging document are still regarded by the senator as too far outside the mainstream.

"If you followed original intent, the galleries in the United States Senate would still be segregated with Caucasians on one side and African-Americans on the other side," Specter said Sunday on ABC's This Week.

He notes, with barely concealed resentment, that Bork traveled to Pennsylvania last year to campaign for Specter's primary opponent.

Specter won that fight and defeated a Democratic challenger in November to win a fifth term, even as Pennsylvania voted for Sen. John Kerry for president. But he did it with the help of Bush and Pennsylvania's junior senator, Rick Santorum, who campaigned for Specter.

The day after the election - with the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee in his sights at last - Specter answered a reporter's question with his usual candor and moderate view. He said that if Bush were to nominate a judicial candidate who opposed abortion rights, he or she might have a tough time being confirmed by the Senate.

It was not a surprising statement from Specter, who firmly supports abortion rights. But it set off a round of criticism from conservative religious groups, who regarded Specter with suspicion because of the Bork nomination. They pressed Senate Republican leaders to deny Specter the post.

In the end, Specter pledged not to use abortion as a litmus test and was unanimously elected chairman. But his conciliatory statement left a perception he would be hamstrung by the deal he had brokered.

Then, in February, Specter announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer that spreads through the lymphatic system and can affect any organ in the body. At the time, his doctors said his chances of survival were good. He is being treated at a hospital in Philadelphia; his last chemotherapy dose is to be July 22.

Friends and observers say the cancer might be having a liberating effect on Specter.

"What are you going to do to him?" said G. Terry Madonna, a public affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College. "He's got a life-threatening disease. He's just won re-election. It's hard to find a senator more independent."

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