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Specter pursues independent political path

WASHINGTON—If President Bush wants to figure out where he stands with Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, he might as well pull petals from a daisy.

Specter worked mightily Monday on Bush's behalf, pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, to craft an immigration bill that gave the president key elements of what he wanted. It was a yeoman effort in the face of vigorous conservative opposition.

On Tuesday, however, Specter plans to take on Bush, chairing a hearing to challenge his authority to conduct secret warrantless eavesdropping on Americans.

That's often the nature of Congress in a president's second term—with him one day, against him the next—but it's especially characteristic of Specter, an independent-minded moderate who has played both good soldier and tilt-at-windmills warrior during his short tenure as the chairman of one of the Senate's busiest committees.

In helping Bush with a thorny immigration bill while resisting his wiretapping program, Specter is giving the Judiciary Committee the high profile that he has relished since he became its chairman early last year.

Still, even Specter concedes that chairing the panel—the culmination of a quarter-century Senate career—hampers his independence.

"It is a good deal more comfortable, in many ways, to be a member of this committee than to be chairman," he said Monday. "The chairman has the responsibility of trying to craft a bill which will pass. ... I can't have all of the chairman's druthers."

Some who have dealt with him over the years say Specter has raised pointed questions on issues ranging from judicial nominations to mine safety to domestic surveillance but that his vote ultimately is with the president.

"He certainly has been willing to push a bit against some things that come from the president," said Elliot Mincberg, the legal director for People for the American Way, a liberal activist group. "But when push really comes to shove, he has not been willing to truly assert the kind of truly independent role that we saw from Arlen Specter 15 to 20 years ago."

Specter made his peace with conservative critics by ushering Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito through the Senate confirmation process, even as he asked both nominees penetrating questions about their judicial views of abortion.

"He has the nimbleness and fancy footwork of a prima ballerina," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and a longtime observer of the Judiciary Committee.

On immigration, Specter tirelessly negotiated language for a guest-worker program that could win a majority in his committee. He also led the panel against a tight one-day deadline, wrapping up the legislation in a long session Monday.

As for warrantless domestic spying, Specter has sided with most Democrats and a handful of Republicans who argue that the president doesn't have the legal authority to order eavesdropping on U.S. citizens.

Specter wants a special court that hears highly sensitive espionage cases to determine the constitutionality of what the president has done. On Tuesday, he plans a closed committee session to question former judges of that special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the committee, salutes its role under Specter: "Overall, this committee is doing great work for the country on issues of consequence. And there can be no more consequential issues than dealing with 11 million undocumented workers and providing a constitutional check and balance at a time of war."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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