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Specter denies having abortion litmus test

Promises not to stall judicial nominees

WASHINGTON -- Insisting he has no litmus test, the Republican in line to head the Senate Judiciary Committee pledged yesterday not to stall President Bush's judicial nominees, even if the prospective judges oppose abortion rights.

The White House expressed confidence that its choices would get a fair hearing.

Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate from Pennsylvania who backs abortion rights, said he has supported judicial nominees in the past who do not agree with the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

''The fact is that I have supported all of President Bush's nominees in committee and on the floor. I have never applied a litmus test," Specter said on CBS's ''Face the Nation."

Looking ahead to the postelection session of Congress that begins Nov. 16, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said he thought House and Senate negotiators should be able to resolve their differences over competing versions of legislation to overhaul US intelligence agencies.

With the election producing stronger Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Hastert, Republican of Illinois, also spoke of the need ''to find solutions, and we should do it on a bipartisan basis." A newcomer to the capital, Senator-elect Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said the election indicated to him that ''people want to get beyond the slash-and-burn, scorched-earth politics that I think has become the custom in Washington."

Meantime, White House political adviser Karl Rove said Bush in his second term ''absolutely" would push for a constitutional amendment that says marriage consists only of the union of a man and a woman. Rove added that the president believes states can deal with the issue of civil unions between gay people, an arrangement that if enacted would grant same-sex partners most or all the rights available to married couples.

Right after the election Tuesday, Specter set off a furor among conservatives when he said antiabortion judges were unlikely to be confirmed by the newly elected Senate.

He said Bush has had trouble getting some of his nominees confirmed because of Democratic filibusters. He added, ''I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning."

Filibusters, a bill-killing tactic of unlimited debate, remain possible in the new Senate because the Republicans' 55-45 majority falls five votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate.

Yesterday, Specter said he was only pointing out a political fact: Republicans alone lack the votes to quash a Democratic filibuster of a Bush nominee. He also said his support for abortion rights would not get in the way of a judge who didn't back those rights.

''Although I am prochoice, I have supported many prolife nominees," Specter said.

On ''Fox News Sunday," Rove said Bush would nominate only judges who would ''strictly apply the law, strictly interpret the Constitution" from the bench.

''He views judges as the impartial umpires," Rove said. ''They shouldn't be activist legislators who just happen to wear robes and never face election, . . . [who]` feel free to pursue their own personal or political agenda."

Rove said Specter has assured the president that he would make certain all Bush's nominees receive a prompt hearing and an up-or-down vote by the full Senate.

''Senator Specter's a man of his word, and we'll take him at his word," Rove said.

Some conservatives are pressing hard to prevent Specter from chairing the Judiciary Committee.

''Senator Specter is a big-time problem for us, and we're very concerned about him," said James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian lobbying group Focus on the Family. ''There are many, many members of that committee that are more qualified and less of a problem than Senator Specter."

With Chief Justice William Rehnquist ailing from thyroid cancer, much speculation has arisen about whether the president soon may have to nominate a Supreme Court justice. As head of the Judiciary Committee, Specter would have wide latitude to schedule hearings, stage committee votes, and make the Senate confirmation process as easy or as hard as he wants.

Items on the congressional agenda in the postelection session and in Bush's second term:

Intelligence overhaul. Hastert said that with the election over, he hoped ''all the political games are done" that have stalled action on legislation stemming from the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. ''I think we need to get it done. It's important for the security of this country," the speaker said.

Tax laws. Rove said the president wants to review US tax law ''in its entirety" and have ''a dialogue as to what is necessary to keep this economy flexible and dynamic and growing." On the prospect of major changes to the tax system, Hastert said, ''I think this is the only time in generations that you might have a chance to be able to do it."

Social Security overhaul. Another priority the president has outlined for his second term. Said Obama: ''All of us want to make sure that our senior citizens can retire with dignity and respect. . . . So I absolutely think that it's possible for us to find common ground."

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