Abstract Musings

Documenting the random thoughts of a cluttered mind

Frist Comments on Senator Specter

The New York Times reports some interesting comments from Bill Frist, Senate Majority leader, regarding Arlen Specter. Frist may have been won over by the anti-Specter crowd:

Senator Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader, said Sunday that he was troubled by Senator Arlen Specter’s recent remarks about potential judicial nominees and that Mr. Specter needed to convince his fellow Republicans that he deserved to be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Arlen made some statements the day after the election,” Dr. Frist, of Tennessee, said on “Fox News Sunday” in an interview with Chris Wallace. “They were disheartening to me; they were disheartening to a lot of people.”

Furthermore the Times goes on to say: “Dr. Frist pointedly declined to endorse Mr. Specter for the post on Sunday, saying the Pennsylvania senator should lobby his Republican colleagues in the Senate’s lame-duck session this week. ‘The case needs to be made to the leadership of the United States Senate,’ Dr. Frist said, ‘and also to the existing members of the Judiciary Committee.’” Sounds like Dr. Frist is taking a hardline with Sen. Specter.

But wait! Let’s review the transcript of Chris Wallace’s interview with Sen. Frist.

WALLACE: Do you support making Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee?

FRIST: Chris, it’s an issue that we’ll begin to face really this week and we won’t make final decisions on until early January.

First of all, as you know, the Senate is a remarkable institution and it has a system and a program and a plan by which you choose the chairman of various committees like the Judiciary Committee.

The way it works, real quickly, is that you choose the committee. The committee itself has not yet been chosen for the next Congress. They select the chairman. That chairman is taken to the entire conference, 55 Republicans, and they make an ultimate decision on that.

The whole process will begin this week.

Secondly, I think it’s important to understand general feelings and what I’m hearing. Arlen made some statements the day after the election. They were disheartening to me. They were disheartening to a lot of different people. He made those not as chairman of the Judiciary Committee but he made those as an individual senator, and he has the right to make that.

Over the last week, he has taken the opportunity to explain to a lot of people what he meant and what he would do. He’s not yet talked to individual senators one on one.

What he will do over the course of this week is meet with Senate leadership. He’ll then meet with members of the existing Judiciary Committee to explain both what he meant and what he would do as chairman. And then ultimately the members of that committee will choose whether or not he serves as their chairman.

From reading the transcript, it seems to me that Sen. Frist isn’t blocking Specter’s promotion to the chairmanship in any meaningful way. Take this exchange from the interview:

WALLACE: But it seems fair – and let’s just go through a couple of checklist points very briefly, if we can.

It seems clear that Senator Specter has not made a persuasive case to you yet.

FRIST: Not yet. But I’ve talked to Arlen, and he is talking to lots of different people now.

And, first of all, it’s not my selection. It is the selection of the Judiciary Committee. I’m not on the Judiciary Committee, but as majority leader, obviously I’m involved in that.

So the case needs to be made to the leadership of the United States Senate, which he will do – we’re going to be meeting on Tuesday morning – and also to the existing members of the Judiciary Committee.

But the ultimate decision will not be made until the final composition of that Judiciary Committee is chosen in about two or three weeks.

Certainly, Frist refrained from endorsing Specter, but it just sounds to me like he’s reassuring those who have contacted his office that he takes this issue seriously, and also giving Specter every chance to make his case before the judiciary committee members and the Senate at large. I think the Times sees the chance that the Republican majority in the Senate might be induced to start a political pogrom amongst their own ranks, and thus weaken their newly elected majority. Becoming a stillborn Senate of sorts.

Captain Ed links to a similar story from Reuters. The Reuters story pushes the idea that Frist is requiring Specter to back all of the President’s nominees to get his coveted chairmanship. In this exchange from the interview, Frist lays out his vision for what he expects from the Judiciary committee Chairman.

What I expect is for a chairman to understand that they are no longer responsible just to themselves or just to their constituents back at home but, as chairman of the committee, they’re responsible to the feelings, the wishes, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of that committee. That is, in this case, the Republican caucus on that committee, the Republican committee members.

Secondly, he has a clear obligation as a chairman to take what the president nominates, consult with the president, take that nomination, get that nomination through committee in an expeditious way, a fair way, a way that gives thoughtful consideration but doesn’t spend too much time, gets that nomination to the floor of the United States Senate.

And very importantly, because in the last Congress, you know, it didn’t happen for a whole set of other reasons that have got to change, that every one of these appellate nominees have an up-or-down vote. Our job is to give advice and consent. And in the past we’ve been denied that opportunity, that responsibility, that constitutional obligation. The chairman must make absolutely sure that we get that up-or-down vote in a timely fashion.

Frist is speaking about the role the committee chairman should take getting the President’s nominees through committee, which as Frist sees it, means he puts aside his personal views and does everything possible to see that the nominee gets to the Senate floor, in a timely manner, for a confirmation vote. This is a reasonable expectation for the majority leader to have with members of his own party in control of the Judiciary Committee and the White House, as long as the nominee is fit. Getting the nominees through committee will be easier with a more compliant Chairman, if Specter’s critics are correct and he proves to be a dishonorable man, but getting those nominees confirmed will certainly be more difficult with Senator Specter humiliated and the possible loss of the moderate Republican votes in the full Senate.