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Judiciary Committee Republicans Support Specter as New Chairman

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

the new york times

WASHINGTON

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican under attack by conservatives as too liberal to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee, won the unanimous backing of the panel’s Republicans on Thursday, a move that appears to guarantee he will become chairman when the new Congress convenes in January.

The announcement, by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the current chairman, came after Specter issued a carefully worded four-paragraph statement in which he promised not to use a “litmus test” to block anti-abortion judicial nominees and said that if necessary he would support changing Senate rules to end the practice of blocking nominations by filibuster.

Moments before Specter read his statement, flanked by eight of the nine other Republicans on the committee, Hatch had announced the committee’s unanimous support, saying of Specter, “He deserves to be chairman of the committee and he’s going to be.”

The announcement, however, does not entirely settle Specter’s future. The committee will not take a formal vote until January, when it is reconstituted with new members, and the entire Republican caucus must ratify the panel’s recommendation. Nonetheless, Hatch said, “It’s a done deal.”

Thursday’s declaration by the committee capped an intense, two-week old campaign by conservatives, who have flooded the Senate with telephone calls and faxes about Specter, whom they oppose because of his vocal support for abortion rights.

Since the Judiciary Committee is the first hurdle for federal judicial nominees, including candidates for the Supreme Court, conservatives worried that Specter could use the chairman’s post to block judges who oppose abortion.

But Specter, a former prosecutor who was just elected to his fifth Senate term, waged a vigorous defense, lobbying his colleagues, and promising to draft the statement he issued Thursday.