News - Arlen Specter makes his bargain

But did he give away his independence in the process?

A few weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter tucked in for a nice dinner with a mysterious friend at a posh Washington eatery. The usual Georgetown dessert was on the menu: dealmaking. The quid pro quo that evening? Not much. Just a senator’s soul in exchange for a committee chairmanship.

OK, so the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee may not actually have met with Mr. Scratch. More likely, the senior senator from Pennsylvania engaged in his typical ritual: a game of squash chased with a couple of martinis, followed by a good meal.

But judging from the manner in which he now is poised to ascend to a position he long has coveted, Specter almost certainly concluded some kind of transaction with the powerful Republican Party insiders who run most aspects of our federal government these days.

Arlen Specter is a moderate, pro-choice Republican with a not-undesirable history of coloring outside partisan lines. That recurrent independence upsets hardcore partisans and especially administration operatives for whom absolute fealty to the “official” agenda trumps everything. Many conservatives dislike Specter for blocking Judge Robert Bork’s 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court and for digging up an obscure Scottish legal concept to avoid voting to remove Bill Clinton from office. For their part, many liberals can’t stand Specter because he chopped Anita Hill apart during the “is that a pubic hair on your soda” hearings for Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination. And even many on Specter’s own staff dislike him because he’s one of the most difficult members of Congress in either chamber and in either party to work for. Fortunately for him, Specter’s biggest fans are swing-state Pennsylvanians who love his position in the center of the political spectrum. They send him back into office again and again, albeit without huge margins of victory.

Needless to say, when the Nov. 2 electoral results confirmed that Specter would be in line to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress — a Congress in which one or more Supreme Court nominees almost certainly will head to the Hill for inquisition — the you-know-what hit the fan. Every conservative group with a fax machine went berserk, blasting Specter in an avalanche of news releases, news conferences, radio and TV interviews, and e-mails and phone calls to any reporter with a pulse. In typical fashion, Specter added fuel to the fire by pointing out the obvious, if controversial, fact that extremely ideological Supreme Court nominees would have a hard time getting confirmed.

The upshot of all this drama is that Specter saw the prize he had long coveted, the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, slipping from his grasp. For a guy in his 70s who’s survived some pretty major health problems, it was now or never. So, to mollify conservatives, the great “independent” senator marched up to the Senate press gallery and delivered a statement pledging fealty to the conservative catechism. The question is: Was America witnessing a true epiphany, or a simple cave-in?

Early indications are that Specter caved. He got the chairmanship, but the price he may have paid was to nix his vexing but, in my view, critically important independence. That kind of independence is rarely evident in the Senate these days. Its disappearance would have consequences not only for judicial nominees, but also for reauthorization (and expansion) of the PATRIOT Act and other vitally important legislation. Instead of serving as a check on the excesses of the Bush administration, our new Judiciary Committee chairman will likely become an enabler, which in turn will send an unmistakable signal to other Republican chairmen and chairmen wannabes.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that being an independent voice in an increasingly polarized and divided Congress is no fun. I did it for eight years. Every time I moved to the right or left of the established party orthodoxy, I got everything from nasty looks to insults and pompous lectures from fellow Republicans. There is little, if any, tolerance for open debate or substantive disagreement in today’s Washington. And the trend is getting worse with each passing year.

To be sure, Arlen Specter is no Jimmy Stewart. But the simple fact is that he represents the views of his state quite accurately. And, he’s one in a shrinking handful of lawmakers who have a history of thinking for themselves rather than blindly doing whatever party leaders order.

I’d much rather hear Specter debate an independent Democrat — Zell Miller, for example — than listen to two Stepford lawmakers bloviate on the Senate floor or blindly mouth party talking points on the White House lawn. (It’s interesting, by the way, that the same Republicans who gush over Miller’s “independence” blast those in their own party who exhibit such a trait.) If Specter becomes another rubber-stamp senator, our civic arena will be the worse for it.

As a Republican congressman from Cobb County, Bob Barr introduced the resolution to impeach President Clinton and was one of the House managers of the impeachment case when it reached the Senate.

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