Arlen Specter's Careful Dissent

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Doug Mills / New York Times / Redux

Arlen Specter

Of all the members of Congress angered by Alberto Gonzales' recent appearances on Capitol Hill, few seemed to take it as personally as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter. Though he has so far refused to call on Gonzales to resign over his role in the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys and his testimony concerning the Administration's wiretapping programs, Specter has rarely hidden his frustration with Gonzales. Just this week, after Gonzales sent Specter and committee chairman Patrick Leahy a letter trying to defend himself against accusations that he had committed perjury in his testimony before the committee, Specter blasted him for deliberately "misleading" the panel. "His testimony was a cat-and-mouse game with the committee and that's not the way the Attorney General of the United States ought to treat the Senate Judiciary Committee," he said.

With comments like that, Specter, 77, may sometimes sound more like a Democrat than a loyal Republican. The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee likes to call himself "an independent." Yet, even though he frequently takes controversial stances that put him at odds with his own party and President Bush, Specter treads carefully.

Perhaps the most indicative example of his nuanced approach is that while Specter is routinely critical of Gonzales — even disparaging him to reporters aboard Air Force One last week — he refuses to ask Gonzales to resign. "I'm just not going to call on Gonzales to resign and I'm not going to call on the President to fire him," Specter said in an interview with TIME. "Those are their decisions. I don't want them telling me what to do about what I do and what I say, and I'm not going to do it to them. But I can't be any more blunt in my criticism in the way that things have fallen apart." Likewise, when asked if he thinks anything that has emerged in the investigations of the warrantless wiretapping or Gonzales' firing of the U.S. Attorneys could merit impeachment of Bush or the Attorney General, Specter barked out an abrupt laugh. "Certainly not the President," Specter said. Then, after a pause: "And I think it's premature to talk about impeachment of anybody. I went through one proceedings of those and it was a big waste of time... I'm sick of wasting my time."

For the President and many Republicans on the Hill, Specter can often come across as arrogant or self-righteous. Never one to mince words or suffer fools, he certainly gets his back up when provoked. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who has known Specter for 40 years, ever since they were both local prosecutors, recalled a hearing with Gonzales not long ago when the Attorney Geneal was "dismissive of Arlen's questioning, almost talking down to him" in his answers. "I was sitting next to him and I could almost feel him stiffen in his chair and then he came back with the strongest response I have ever heard a Senator deliver to a Cabinet member," Leahy recalled. "We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright," Specter told Gonzales, adding that Gonzales' version of his role in the firings was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts."

Gonzales's dealings with the Judiciary Committee — especially his recent attempts to explain away seemingly contradictory testimony about internal disputes over the wiretapping program — may well have cost Bush a much-needed ally for another piece of legislation that means a lot to him: a bill to allow the government to eavesdrop on international communications without obtaining a special court order. Bush and the G.O.P. leadership are pushing for quick passage of the bill after a secret court ruling several months ago suspended the warrantless wiretapping activities. Republicans would like to grant the Attorney General the power to approve such activities, while Democrats are insisting that he be forced to get sign-off from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts — the same court that suspended the controversial program. Specter has sided with the Democrats, saying in a statement that he can't imagine granting the Attorney General sole power to approve such vital wiretaps. "I am concerned by provisions of the proposed legislation which would give extensive authority to the Attorney General," Specter said. "Regrettably, Attorney General Gonzales does not enjoy the confidence of many, if not most, members of Congress.

For all such statements of principle, however, some Democrats have complained that Specter is more talk than action; when push comes to shove he'll toe the party line. Specter disputes this, pointing to his willingness to subpoena Bush's top political aide Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers over the firing of U.S. Attorneys last year. Bush invoked executive privilege and neither of the two appeared before the committee. Specter has suggested the Senate could hold a special contempt trial if the executive privilege standoff continues.

Still, it's clear that Specter picks his battles with the President carefully. He has been, for example, one of Bush's most important advocates on his judicial nominees. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Specter shepherded through Bush's two nominees to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. "The President understands that there's a separation of power and that I have a duty to be independent and I think he acknowledges that," Specter said. "I think my independence was a big help to getting Judges Roberts and Alito confirmed, and I think that's recognized."

Specter is also championing Bush's controversial nominee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Leslie Southwick. Critics of the judge cite two of his District Court decisions that could be construed as racist and anti-gay. Specter dismisses these criticisms, arguing that Southwick is a highly respected judge with a unanimous rating from the American Bar Association. After months of wrangling, Specter this week won his battle to force the full Senate to give Southwick an up or down vote.

Another issue where Specter is supporting the President is immigration. Specter was the driving force behind last year's Senate passage of the immigration bill, only to see the Republican-controlled House block the measure. This week, with the legislation considered by most all but dead, Specter resurrected a bill and is rallying the 12 negotiators who worked on the legislation earlier this year to make a third effort to get it passed. "We ought to do something on it now, not sit on it for another period of years," he said.

Getting things done is a priority for Specter, a moderate Republican willing to deal with Democrats in search of compromises that produce results. But in a Washington increasingly paralyzed by partisanship, his kind of independence is a rare commodity.