President Bush’s recess appointment last week of William Pryor to a federal judgeship is dividing Congress along partisan lines, but critics say that at least one Republican senator seems unwilling to take a firm stand on the issue.
Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is refusing to voice support for the appointment of Pryor, who has been blasted as ultra-conservative by Democrats and liberal groups. In an interview with the Forward, however, Specter did defend the president’s right to make this recess appointment, his second such appointment in the span of a month.
The Constitution allows a president to make a recess appointment while Congress is not in session. The Senate was on vacation last week for Presidents’ Day.
Referring to Democratic filibustering of Pryor and a handful of other judicial candidates, Specter said, “What the president is essentially doing here is fighting fire with fire.” Specter, a moderate, pro-choice Republican, declined to say whether he would have voted for Pryor, a harsh critic of abortion rights, had his nomination been voted on by the full Senate.
In July, during Judiciary Committee hearings, Specter cast the deciding vote to send Pryor’s nomination to the floor of the Senate. He then, however, quickly released a statement declaring “the Constitution provides that confirmations are to be decided by the Senate and not just the Judiciary Committee” and insisting that he reserved the right to change his opinion before the full Senate vote. Specter said that he was concerned about several aspects of Pryor’s record.
Observers say that Specter, facing a primary challenge from pro-life Rep. Pat Toomey and a tough election in November against Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel, is attempting to straddle the partisan fence in an effort to please both Republican and Democratic constituents. Specter’s opponents are criticizing him for what they describe as his refusal to stake out a firm position on Pryor and several other controversial issues.
“Most Senators on committee make a judgment in committee and stick to it on the floor, but Senator Specter wants it both ways,” said Toomey, a conservative who will face Specter in the Republican primary in April. “He’s not supporting President Bush’s nominees the way he should be and could be.”
Hoeffel also criticized Specter for changing his tune on the subject of recess appointments. Specter condemned a recess appointment by President Clinton in 1997, saying it “was poisoning the water on other important matters which require senatorial concurrence,” and could jeopardize the legislative process on judicial confirmations.
“Specter is only against recess appointments when Democratic presidents are making them,” said Hoeffel. “He ought to be consistent.”
In response, Specter, one of two Jewish Republicans in the Senate, said that while he would prefer that the president not resort to recess appointments, the atmosphere in Congress has changed. “He can’t poison the water today because they’re totally poisoned,” Specter said. “There is no pure water around here today.”
Specter told the Forward that he had wanted the opportunity for a full debate in the Senate, specifically regarding charges of fund-raising fraud against Pryor that surfaced toward the end of the Judiciary Committee hearings. Specter said his vote “would have depended on what further investigation showed,” adding that he wanted to give his constituents an opportunity to express their opinions.
Pryor’s appointment drew strong condemnations from Jewish liberal groups, including the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “The president’s decision… is an affront to all those who cherish constitutional liberties,” declared the National Council for Jewish Women in a statement to the media.
A self-proclaimed conservative Christian and former Alabama attorney general, Pryor has condemned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees a right to an abortion, and has called for a lowering of the wall separating church and state.
Pryor will hold the appointment in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals until the end of 2005. To maintain his position, Pryor then will need to win a nomination vote in the Senate.