Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party brings his new colleagues a little closer to controlling 60 seats in the Senate, but it’s not clear that the switch will have much of an effect on the fate of nominees for the federal bench and the Justice Department.
Lawyers and lobbyists who follow the Senate Judiciary Committee have long said that it’s difficult to predict how Specter will vote on nominees — even when he asks critical questions of them in confirmation hearings. Today the Pennsylvanian vowed not to change his approach.
“I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own approach to individual issues. I will not be an automatic 60th vote,” Specter told reporters, referring to the votes needed to invoke cloture and cut off Senate debate. He added later, “I have always agreed with John Kennedy that sometimes parties ask too much. And if the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not hesitate to disagree and vote my independent thinking.”
In fact, Specter provided a fresh example of that independence today, saying for the first time that he is “opposed” to the nomination of Dawn Johnsen to be assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel. Her confirmation is a priority for the Democratic Party’s base, in part because the office has been at the center of the battle over interrogation policies. Specter did not elaborate on his reasons for opposing her or make clear whether he would vote for cloture. (Only one Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, has said he will support Johnsen. Johnsen is a law professor at Indiana University at Bloomington.)
Specter is expected to keep his committee assignments. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that, on questions of seniority, the Democratic caucus would treat Specter as if he had always been a Democrat. That would make him the second-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. He has six years less seniority than Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and eight years more seniority than Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who has been second to Leahy.
Asked whether he would change his approach to potential judges in particular, Specter said he would not. “I am willing to listen to any judicial nominee,” Specter said. He then alluded to the Republicans’ boycott of the April 1 confirmation hearing for David Hamilton, nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and he said his only concern had been inadequate time to prepare for the hearing. “I will counsel the chairman to have adequate time to prepare,” he said.
Specter has so far voted for all but one of President Barack Obama’s nominees for the Justice Department. He opposed Solicitor General Elena Kagan, whom he criticized for refusing to answer specific questions about her constitutional views.
The party switch would make a difference for an Obama nominee if Specter, as a member of the president’s party, were to feel a greater obligation to help end debate and bring a nomination to a vote. He did not indicate today whether he would be more likely to do so.
The switch will likely lead to a change in tenor on the Judiciary Committee, where Specter, as the top Republican since 2005, has worked closely with Leahy. Though no decision has been announced, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is in line to succeed Specter as ranking member, unless Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) gives up his leadership post on the Finance Committee or Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) steps down as Republican whip. Sessions was the 16th most conservative senator last Congress, putting him well to the right of Specter, according to one ranking. Sessions spent 12 years as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.
UPDATE: Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com writes that every party-switcher in Congress since 1980 has changed his voting pattern, post-switch, to be more like his new party. Specter would be unique if his votes did not become more liberal.