By CAROLYN LOCHHEAD
San Francisco Chronicle
September 12, 2005
Central casting would be hard put to find a more made-to-order set of 18 senators to convene the hearings, including a maverick chairman battling a life-threatening disease; a social conservative who said abortionists should get the death penalty; a woman elected after the Thomas hearings; and a former judicial nominee who was rejected by the committee and now sits on it.
Arlen Specter, 75, is bald from chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin's disease and was just re-elected to a six-year Senate term from Pennsylvania. He has long coveted the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee and, according to a friend, is "playing for the ages now."
A pro-choice Republican, Specter is deeply disliked by social conservatives, who almost blocked his chairmanship when he warned President Bush not to nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
According to a copy of his opening remarks made available in advance to several news services, Specter intends to allow wide latitude in the questioning of Roberts.
"While I personally consider it inappropriate to ask a nominee how he would vote on a specific matter likely to come before the court, senators may ask whatever they choose, and the nominee is similarly free to respond as he chooses," he said in the prepared text.
Specter earned enemies on both sides for his harsh grilling of Anita Hill during the Thomas hearings, and of Robert Bork, a conservative Supreme Court nominee of President Ronald Reagan's who failed to win confirmation in large part thanks to Specter.
A former prosecutor, Specter likes to surprise witnesses, but this time has sent letters to Roberts outlining what he expects will be tough lines of questioning on how he thinks the court has usurped congressional authority, and made "denigrating and, really, disrespectful statements about Congress' competence."
One hopeful who has already declared his candidacy for 2008, the voluble Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., sits on the committee. Biden is famous for his colorful phrasing and wandering tangents. He formerly chaired the committee. Generally tilting moderate, Biden may provide a gauge for how national Democratic candidates want to position themselves against Republicans on social controversies.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., are considered to be eyeing the Democratic nomination. Neither sits on the committee, but both will be positioning themselves for the debate in the full Senate.
There are no Republican presidential hopefuls on the committee, and those considered likely to run from the Senate back Roberts.
The committee's only woman, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has embraced her role, citing her election in the wake of the Thomas hearings. "I will never forget watching the (Thomas) hearings" and "the demeaning treatment Anita Hill received before the all-male committee," Feinstein said in a recent speech. "Well, that day is gone, and it will not occur again."
Although Feinstein has spoken kindly about Roberts' intellect and temperament, she has said she will oppose any nominee who would threaten to strike down the court's landmark 1973 Roe decision.
Gang of 14
Two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike DeWine of Ohio, were key players in a group dubbed the "Gang of 14" who brokered a bipartisan deal earlier this year to preserve judicial filibusters but use them only in "extraordinary circumstances."
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York has emerged as an aggressive spokesman for progressives, threatening to eclipse older liberal leaders, including Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. A shrewd and glib Brooklynite with a Harvard law degree, Schumer has been aggressive in opposing Bush's judicial nominees, arguing that they can be rejected on ideological grounds.
Sen. John Cornyn, an ambitious Texan and former state Supreme Court judge and attorney general, was rumored to be a possible Bush nominee before Roberts was chosen. Cornyn is looking to rise in the GOP leadership and has used past nominations to raise his Senate profile.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions is the son of a country-store owner who walked to school barefoot. He also served as his state's attorney general. Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship in 1985, but the committee voted him down after he was accused of racial insensitivity in prosecuting voter fraud. Specter voted against him. Now he has a seat on the committee.
Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma freshman, are religious conservatives and fierce abortion foes. Coburn is considered a wild card even within his own party. He came under heavy criticism during his campaign last fall for saying he favored the death penalty for abortionists. He later said he meant that only if abortion were illegal.
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