Specter Squeezed From Left, Right On Support for Bush’s Bench Picks

By E.J. Kessler

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter is getting the political squeeze from both the left and right over his support of President Bush’s anti-abortion judicial nominees. The jam has Democrats predicting that Specter will lose the Jewish vote and fail in his bid for a fifth term.

The nation’s senior Jewish lawmaker and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter has voted to confirm all of Bush’s controversial pro-life picks. His declared Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Hoeffel, says it is “going to be a big problem for the senator.”

“If he were consistent with his longtime moderate stance, he would be opposing those nominees, but he’s veering to the right to keep pace with Pat Toomey and to keep faith with President Bush,” Hoeffel told the Forward. Hoeffel was referring to Rep. Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican from Allentown who is challenging Specter from the right in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary.

Toomey also faults Specter on judicial questions — but for not being firmly enough behind Bush’s nominees. In May, he scored Specter for “hindering” Bush’s nominee for the U.S. District Court in Arkansas, Judge James Leon Holmes, after Specter withheld support for Holmes, forcing the Judiciary Committee to forward Holmes’s nomination to the Senate without recommendation. More recently, Toomey has been dogging Specter for stalling on the nomination of Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, who is up for another federal judgeship. Specter’s campaign, for its part, ducked questions about the senator’s judicial votes.

“Senator Specter is too busy attending to Senate business to respond to political attacks,” Specter’s campaign manager, Christopher Nicholas, told the Forward. “When the Democrats have a nominee after the April primary, the senator will be prepared to discuss the issues.”

Another thing Democrats are saying will be a problem for Specter is Pennsylvania’s Jewish vote, about 3% of the electorate. The Jewish vote was safely in Specter’s column during his last election but was an issue during Specter’s toughest challenge to date, his 1992 race against feminist activist and Democrat Lynn Yeakel. According to many accounts, Yeakel was winning the Jewish vote until Morton Klein — then a little-known local Jewish activist, now the president of the Zionist Organization of America — pointed out that she was vice chairman of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, where anti-Israel sermons and speakers were common. When Yeakel was slow to respond, the Jewish vote swung dramatically behind Specter. Yeakel lost by 1% in the so-called Year of the Woman, to Specter, the man who had led the Republican inquisition against Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill. Many credited the Jewish vote for determining the outcome.

The chairman of Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County Democratic Party, Marcel Groen, said he thinks Hoeffel will win the Jewish vote because Specter “is voting in lockstep with George Bush.”

“That’s not where the Jewish community in Pennsylvania is, not just on judges, but on taxes and in domestic areas,” Groen said.

“Joe Hoeffel is not Lynn Yeakel,” Groen added, noting that Hoeffel had “overwhelmingly” won the Jewish vote in his district during each election he had run in the past eight years. “Specter says [to the Jewish community], ‘I’m Jewish. Vote for me.’ That’s not enough.”

One Pennsylvania Jewish communal leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in his view Specter is fine on Israel but “soft” on Syria, to which he has traveled several times to engage in informal diplomacy. The senator, who displays a picture of himself with the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad on an office wall, has not affixed his name to some pieces of anti-terrorism legislation that many in the Jewish community see as symbolically important, the communal official noted.

One such measure is the Syria Accountability Act, which threatens Syria with sanctions and is supported by 63 of Specter’s colleagues. Another is the Koby Mandell Act, named after a 13-year-old American citizen murdered in the West Bank, which would establish a small unit at the State Department to pursue Palestinian terrorists who have murdered 43 American citizens. Hoeffel, for his part, supports the House version of the Koby Mandell Act. In an interview with the Forward, he also questioned the “timing” of an administration decision to grant $20 million to the Palestinian Authority, saying that no money should be given “until the P.A. cracks down on terrorism.” Such positions have some observers echoing Groen’s claim that Hoeffel will take home the Jewish vote.

In response to that prediction, Nicholas said: “It is a little presumptuous to take the Jewish vote for granted. Senator Specter’s experience has always been that the Jewish vote is very thoughtful and focused on the current issues.”

Meanwhile, Hoeffel is aiming squarely at the judicial issue. “If I’m elected senator, I would consider all nominees on their own merits but will be opposed to any nominee with extremist views on the right or the left,” Hoeffel said. In what has become a campaign theme, Hoeffel stressed what he described as Specter’s inconsistency on the issue, saying that the senator’s judicial votes showed him to be a “waffler who is pacifying, placating and pandering” to the right wing for political expediency.

“This may be the election when it all catches up to him,” Hoeffel said. Hoeffel even contrasted Toomey’s and Specter’s positions on the issue, saying, “Pat has the courage of his convictions,” while Specter does not.

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