You can tell Senator Rick “Dog Sex” Santorum (R-PA) is already thinking about his 2006 re-election prospects (and, I believe, ultimately jockeying for a 2008 presidential run). He’s adeptly assessing the Arlen Specter battle to head the Judiciary Committee, and weighing the impact of any public support of him in his bid, especially among the wingnut crowd. He’s earned some gold stars with them because of his unhinged comments about homosexuality.
But while home state concerns prodded Santorum to help Specter, a moderate who supports abortion rights, his own budding national constituency of conservatives pulled angrily in the other direction. The result was uncharacteristic reticence on the part of the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, a 46-year-old, second-term lawmaker who seems to relish political combat and may harbor national ambitions as well.
“I don’t want to usurp the power of the committee by making a recommendation one way or the other,” he told reporters Wednesday. “This is the committee’s decision,” he added of the panel that reviews President Bush’s appointments to the federal courts.
Nor did Santorum attend a key leadership meeting this week at which Specter underwent an extraordinary vetting.
Nor was he in evidence Thursday when Specter won his battle after issuing an extraordinary public pledge designed to satisfy conservative skeptics. “I have assured the president that I would give his nominees quick committee hearings and early committee votes,” regardless of their views on abortion, Specter said.
Moments later, perhaps inadvertently, he framed Santorum’s political dilemma. Asked whether his fellow Pennsylvanian had helped him gain his lifelong political goal, Specter quickly said, “Yes.” Then, catching himself in mid-sentence, he added: “Well. It may get him into trouble if I say yes. Let him speak for himself.”
…His attitude seemed different two weeks ago, when the controversy first flared. That was when Specter, fresh from a home state re-election victory, said anti-abortion nominees to the Supreme Court would likely find it difficult to win Senate confirmation.
…But while Santorum was telling reporters earlier this week he wasn’t taking sides, other Republicans said that came as news to them. “Santorum has been supportive of Specter,” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said, an assessment that other senators confirmed on condition of anonymity.
[NOW WE SEE THE WINGNUTS ON PARADE — Pam]
Outside the Senate, Santorum’s initial tilt infuriated some conservatives, still angry that he sided with Specter against a primary challenger, conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, last spring. He did so after reassuring his supporters that whatever Specter’s personal views on abortion, he had never applied a litmus test to appointments to the court in the past, and had pledged not to do so in the future.
“I don’t expect Senator Santorum to support (Specter),” said Nancy Staible, Pennsylvania state director of Concerned Women for America, a conservative organization that claims 10,000 Pennsylvania members. She said she would “have to reconsider my support” for Santorum, whom she said she has known since before he came to Congress in 1990.
“I think Santorum has really injured himself here,” said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, head of the Christian Defense Coalition. “I view Senator Santorum as trying to find refuge in a political firestorm, and he’s doing what is so common among Washington politicians, which is … sticking his finger up and seeing which way the wind is going to blow.”