Senate Fight Highlights Evangelicals’ Rise in GOP

By E.J. Kessler

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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The movement to prevent Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the nation’s senior Republican Jewish lawmaker, from assuming the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee is highlighting the ascendance of evangelicals in the Republican Party — and the loss of power of moderate Northeasterners.

Since Specter, a moderate pro-choice lawmaker, made post-election comments noting that anti-abortion judicial nominees would have trouble getting approved by the Senate, evangelicals and other conservatives have inundated Senate offices with mail and phone calls, even holding a Capitol Hill “pray-in” in an attempt to derail Specter’s chairmanship. Specter, who is entitled to the chairmanship under Senate Republican seniority rules, since has backpedaled furiously, lobbying his colleagues to save his post. While some senators, including outgoing Judiciary chairman Orrin Hatch, have indicated that Specter, recently elected to a fifth term, is likely to prevail in the end, tensions persist as the matter awaits a final vote in January.

As a chastened Specter struggled to make his case to his colleagues this week, the Senate’s other Jewish Republican, Norm Coleman, who headed President Bush’s re-election campaign in Minnesota, failed in a bid to win the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, losing out to a more conservative colleague, Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.

Meanwhile, Senator Charles Schumer, a liberal New York Democrat who has been instrumental in blocking Bush’s most conservative judicial picks, this week accepted an invitation to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, making him one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress and underscoring the continuing dependence of the Democrats on Jewish activists and on fund raisers.

The differing receptions that Specter, Coleman and Schumer received as the lame-duck Senate reconvened threw into sharp relief the varying fortunes of Jewish lawmakers in both parties.

“I think the Republicans can really hurt themselves if they don’t choose Arlen,” said Martin Belsky, a University of Tulsa law professor who worked for Specter when Specter was a prosecutor in Pennsylvania. “They have increased their share of the Jewish vote by 6% because of Israel and security. If they hold Arlen back because they disagree with his opinions, they are saying to Jews and to moderates that the Christian right is like a bull in a china shop. It’s a mistake politically.”

Jewish Republicans, however, pointed to the naming this week of Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, a Jewish Harvard Law graduate from Baltimore, as Republican National Committee chairman, which is evidence that their influence is growing both in the party and in the Jewish community. “Having a Jewish Republican in such a high-profile leadership position as chairman of the Republican National Committee shows the growth and vitality of the Jewish Republican movement,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “We are ecstatic about continuing to work with Ken over the months and years ahead.”

Mehlman indicated that he is not the first Jew to head the GOP: He identified that fellow as one Victor Rosewater, who became chairman in 1912. In an e-mail message, Mehlman wrote that the party would continue “reaching out to attract new faces and new voices,” including “Latino Americans, African Americans, Jewish Americans, Asian Americans, women and others.”

First, some critics of the GOP say, he must undo the impression that the party dances to the tune of evangelical activists.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist coldly laid down a series of tests for Specter in television appearances this week. If Specter becomes chairman, Frist said Sunday on Fox News, he must bow “to the feelings, the wishes, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of [the] committee” and must “have a strong predisposition to supporting that nominee sent over by President Bush.”

Specter, for his part, has spent much of the past two weeks trying to satisfy Frist and other conservatives. “My record is clear that although I am pro-choice, I have supported many pro-life nominees,” the senator wrote in response to criticisms in the conservative magazine National Review. “I strongly believe that the president’s choice of a Supreme Court justice should be respected, absent lack of qualification or judicial temperament. My prediction that Roe [v. Wade] will not be overturned is simply my opinion, based largely on the political fact that Democrats have a history of filibustering nominees. It is not a warning to anyone that I won’t support a pro-life nominee.”

Specter went on to argue that as chairman he “would offer perhaps the best chance of building consensus, dissolving Democratic obstruction and getting the president’s nominees confirmed,” adding that he had gone “to the Senate floor on 17 separate occasions to protest the Democratic filibusters of such fine jurists as Miguel Estrada and Charles Pickering” and had “fought the filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominees by seeking to change the Senate rules.”

Furthermore, on Sunday he told ABC News’s “This Week,” he would consider pressing for Frist’s so-called nuclear option of changing Senate rules to eliminate the use of filibusters for judicial nominees. Democratic filibusters have prevented 10 of President Bush’s 200-odd federal judicial picks from getting an up-or-down vote by the Senate.

“When the facts about his record become clear, the opposition tends to diminish,” Specter spokesman Charles Robbins told the Forward.

Even so, Specter’s extemporizing failed to assuage the ire of conservative groups.

“The more he tries to ‘clarify’ himself, the clearer it becomes that he can’t be trusted with the reins of this important committee,” stated Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women of America, one of the conservative groups gunning for Specter.

Some said a neutered Specter assuming the chairmanship presented the best outcome for conservatives. “It may work to benefit the pro-life forces,” said G. Terry Madonna, a leading Pennsylvania pollster. “Now he may be cognizant of their concerns.”

While Specter’s saga was threatening to divide Republican ranks, Democrats in New York were breathing sighs of relief over Schumer’s decision to take the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as well as a seat on the powerful Finance Committee, which oversees tax policy, Medicare and Medicaid. Frustrated with his minority status in the Senate, Schumer had toyed with the notion of running for governor in 2006, a path that would have put him on a collision course with Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the so-called Sheriff of Wall Street, who is favored for the gubernatorial nod by the New York State Democratic Committee’s top brass. The senator also retains his seats on the important Judiciary and Banking committees.

“This was an offer that, for the sake of New York, I could not refuse,” Schumer said in a statement.

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