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Specter ready to force showdown

GOP senator emerges as White House rival on legislative issues

WASHINGTON -- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter emerged this week as a nemesis that the Bush White House hasn't had to face: A subpoena-wielding member of Congress who is ready to force a showdown over what he sees as the Bush administration's intrusion into legislative territory.

From President Bush's warrantless eavesdropping program to the ``signing statements" in which he selectively enforces portions of laws, Republicans in control of the House and Senate have been unwilling to challenge the White House.

Democrats have howled in protest but remain powerless to force changes because of their minority status in Congress.

Specter, however, seems willing to take Bush and his administration to task. A strong believer in the Senate's institutional prerogatives, the Pennsylvania Republican has grown increasingly frustrated with a presidency that he believes is encroaching on Congress's power -- and lawmakers' checks on the power of the White House.

That spurred the unusual letter Specter fired off Wednesday to Vice President Dick Cheney. Specter blasted the vice president, accusing him of going behind his back to derail a Senate investigation into the administration's secret collection of Americans' phone records to look for terrorist activity.

Specter has also made it clear that he is willing to use his post on the powerful judiciary committee to broaden his inquiry into other controversial White House policies. He is raising fresh concerns over Bush's use of signing statements as well as Justice Department threats to prosecute reporters, and the recent FBI raid on a House member's office; it is unclear, however, if he has enough support from other committee members.

Bush ``doesn't have a blank check. He's not the final word. We have a Constitution," Specter said Wednesday night on CNN. ``I intend to press hard, because there are very fundamental values at issue here: civil rights and congressional oversight authority."

Cheney's response to Specter, however, offered no apologies -- and did not address Specter's questions about the wiretapping program or other White House actions. The vice president described his private conversations with Republican senators simply as ``government at work."

Despite their disagreements, ``we should proceed in a practical way to build on the areas of agreement," Cheney wrote. ``We look forward to working with you, knowing of the good faith on all sides."

Still, Specter's concerns could be troublesome for the administration, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. Specter can use his power to subpoena administration officials to testify about subjects they would rather not discuss in public, and he can hold up White House nominations and budget funding, Tobias said.

``He can really put sand in the gears on the types of things the administration really wants to move on," he said. ``He may be driven to that point."

How hard Specter intends to push remains an open question.

In the past, Democrats have been frustrated by Specter, who they say raises their hopes with tough talk against the White House but dashes them with disappointing action. In April, Senate minority leader Harry Reid labeled Specter a ``moderate Republican . . . whenever you don't need him."

Yesterday, Specter irritated Democrats anew by supporting a bill that would more firmly establish the legal status of the domestic spying program. Specter said he just wanted to move the bill forward so it can be amended later to insert more safeguards, but Democrats said any action should wait until lawmakers can get a fuller picture of what the program entails.

``The last thing we want to do is pass legislation that says, `Whatever you're doing is perfectly OK with us, but don't tell us what it is you're doing,' " said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the judiciary committee's ranking Democrat.

Specter, 76, has always fashioned himself a man of the law, committed to upholding the structure of government regardless of which party occupies the White House. A finicky and irascible politician with a wry sense of humor, he authored the Warren Commission's ``single-bullet theory" regarding the John F. Kennedy assassination, and is Pennsylvania's longest-serving US senator, with 25 years in office.

Nicknamed ``Snarlin' Arlen," Specter is known for his earthiness and explosive temper, some of which was revealed in his letter to Cheney. Writing with mock surprise, Specter scolded the vice president for keeping mum about the hearings at a Tuesday senators' luncheon even though ``I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions en route from the buffet to my table."

Specter infuriated conservatives with his opposition to Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987, then left liberals perplexed by his harsh questioning of Anita Hill and his ultimate support for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. He broke with his party over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and his strong support for abortion rights leaves him at odds with most members of his party.

Specter has had a complex relationship with the Bush White House. Their political differences aside, Bush helped Specter overcome a tough primary challenge in 2004, then ignored skeptical conservatives and backed the senator for the judiciary committee chairmanship.

Specter, in turn, supported Bush's two Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., conducting hearings that drew praise from both parties. Now, having survived Hodgkin's disease, Specter is girding for battle with the White House.

Asked about his concerns about White House overreach yesterday, Specter warbled a few bars from the Broadway musical ``Oklahoma!" song to make his point.

``She went about as far as she could go!" Specter sang, hitting the final high note.

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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