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Dems give Specter key subcommittee chair

The Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat will lead the Senate Judiciary Committee's busiest subcommittee, which is responsible for legislation on drug sentencing.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter gained a Judiciary subcommittee chairmanship but also a potential primary challenger Thursday, the latest twists in a turbulent episode of party switching.

The good news-bad news day for Specter didn't stop there.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge announced he would not challenge Specter next year. Ridge, a moderate Republican and the first homeland security chief, had been running about even against Specter in a hypothetical general election race, according to a recent poll.

In the primary, however, Specter may face Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral from the Philadelphia suburbs. In an interview with The Associated Press, Sestak said he's seriously considering taking on the 79-year-old Specter, who will be seeking a sixth term.

"The Democratic political establishment reached into the GOP establishment to give us the Democratic candidate for the future," said Sestak, 57.

"It's not theirs to make, it's ours to make," Sestak added of the choice for who serves in that seat. "It's not what we came to Washington to do is tell Pennsylvanians what they are to do in their Democratic choices."

Specter has $6.7 million cash on hand; Sestak has more than $3 million.

Faced with a looming political threat, Specter picked up some Senate clout.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he would give up his chairmanship of the Judiciary Crime and Drugs subcommittee in exchange for becoming chairman of a panel on human rights. The move, he said, would "best utilize Senator Specter's talents and experience in our caucus."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., indicated later that the deal was not final because the details on the human rights panel had to be worked out. But Durbin said the Specter chairmanship was not in doubt.

Specter said he appreciated the gesture and offered a telling observation about the never-dull Senate.

"This is a territorial place," he told reporters. He would not commit to voting with Democrats.

'I forgot what team I was on'
The musical chairs of subcommittee chairmanships were designed to stem the fallout in the days since Specter switched to the Democratic Party last week. Democrats on Tuesday failed to honor Specter's 28 years of Senate seniority he accumulated as a Republican before switching.

Since becoming a Democrat, Specter has been at odds with his new party, voting against the Democratic-backed budget, expressing opposition to a government option on health care overhaul and maintaining his opposition to a bill that would make it easier for unions to organize. Democrats also questioned his support for Republican Norm Coleman over Al Franken in the unresolved Minnesota Senate race.

Reid, D-Nev., told CNN on Wednesday that when he later asked Specter about the Coleman remark, Specter said, "I forgot what team I was on."

Specter's actions helped build momentum for the seniority-stripping resolution, according to some Democratic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions had been private. In the days after Specter switched parties, some Democrats complained to Reid about losing seniority, others about Specter's comments. The resolution passed by voice vote Tuesday.

Reid's office denied there was a connection.

"There's no relation between how the resolution ended up being drafted and any comments that Sen. Specter may have made in the last week or so," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

But Democrats also recognized that alienating Specter, a former prosecutor, could be politically disastrous as President Barack Obama prepared to name a replacement for retiring Justice David Souter. Specter has served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, its top Republican and has considerable clout in committee proceedings.

The resolution was intended to placate other Democrats concerned that Specter's switch might leapfrog him into a full committee chairmanship and bump one of them. It also served to remind Specter where he stands with his new colleagues in the Democratic caucus.

The Crime and Drugs panel, Democratic officials said, seemed a good compromise. It is Judiciary's busiest subcommittee, responsible for oversight of the Justice Department, federal prosecutors, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and drug control policy.

As a subcommittee chairman, Specter would retain some of his clout on the full committee when it convenes for Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Durbin said Reid had signed off on the subcommittee switch.

Democrats also were looking ahead to next year's Senate race. Ridge's decision to bow out increases the likelihood that former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey will secure the nomination. Recent polls show Specter easily beating Toomey.