A controversy has been brewing on Capitol Hill concerning the chairmanship of a key Senate committee. Republican leaders have been under pressure from conservative Christian supporters to deny a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee the chairmanship because of his moderate views on abortion and other social matters. The issue highlights the rising influence of conservatives in the aftermath of this month's elections.
Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, is at the heart of the controversy.
Senator Specter, the most moderate Republican on the Judiciary Committee and the only one who supports abortion rights, is in line for chairmanship because of seniority. The outgoing head of the panel, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, must step down from the post because of Republican term limits for chairmen.
On November 3, a day after winning his fifth Senate term, Senator Specter angered conservatives when he said it would be tough for the Senate to confirm judges who oppose abortion rights. At a news conference, he said he would expect President Bush to be, in his words, "mindful of the considerations he was mentioning when choosing nominees."
The Senator said he was merely making a point that nominees would need bipartisan support to clear Democratic procedural hurdles to win Senate confirmation. Indeed, despite Republican Senate gains in the election, the party, with its 55-seat majority in the chamber, is still five seats short of ending Democratic procedural maneuvers to block nominees.
But conservative Christian groups, which proved influential in President Bush's reelection and in the election of more Republicans to the Congress, are demanding that Mr. Specter be denied the chairmanship.
Not only do these groups disagree with the Senator's abortion rights views, they also have long been angry with him for blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, a hero to conservatives, back in 1987.
Patrick Mahoney is Director of the Christian Defense Coalition:
"If Senator Specter becomes head of the Judiciary Committee, it is a betrayal and a slap in the face to millions of pro-life Americans who worked to help re-elect this President and get a 55 Republican majority in the Senate," said Mr. Mahoney.
Mr. Mahoney and representatives of other Christian groups demonstrated on Capitol Hill to urge that the Senator not become Judiciary Committee chairman.
They suggested that elevating Mr. Specter to the post could jeopardize their support of Republican Senators who are up for reelection in two years, or like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, may be considering a run for the White House in 2008.
Mr. Frist was critical of Mr. Specter's comments in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
"Arlen made some statements the day after the election. They were disheartening to me. They were disheartening to a lot of different people," he said.
In recent days, Senator Specter has been involved in damage control. He told CBS television's Face the Nation that over the past four years he has never opposed any judicial nominees.
"The fact is I have supported all of President Bush's nominees in committee and on the floor," he explained.
In addition, Mr. Specter has been holding a series of meetings with Republican Senators to underscore that, as chairman, he would give all nominees fair and expeditious treatment.
His effort appears to be working.
Outgoing Chairman Hatch predicted Mr. Specter would succeed him as chairman, saying no committee Republican voiced opposition to the Pennsylvania Senator.
But with continuing strong opposition from conservative Christian groups, Mr. Specter is not proclaiming victory just yet.
"Never count any chickens until all the eggs are hatched," said Senator Orin Hatch.
Senator Hatch said a formal selection of chairman would not be made until after a new Congress is seated in January.