WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats gave party switcher Arlen Specter a plum Judiciary subcommittee chairmanship on Thursday as a potential primary challenger to the veteran Pennsylvania lawmaker stepped forward.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said he would give up his chairmanship of the 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.”
The move came as Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., a former Navy vice admiral, said he’s seriously considering a challenge to Specter in next year’s Pennsylvania primary.
“The Democratic political establishment reached into the GOP establishment to give us the Democratic candidate for the future. I don’t think we want to re-establish the establishment,” Sestak said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“It’s not theirs to make, it’s ours to make. That’s really what moved me. It’s the ideal. It’s not what we came to Washington to do is tell Pennsylvanians what they are to do in their Democratic choices.”
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 switching, Specter has been at odds with his new party, voting against the Demcratic-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.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told CNN on Wednesday that when he asked Specter about the remark, Specter said, “I forgot what team I was on.”
The Crime and Drugs panel 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 to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace retiring Justice David Souter.
Durbin said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as well as Reid, signed off on the subcommittee switch.
Specter said last week he and Reid had agreed he would be treated for seniority purposes as though he had been elected as a Democrat when he first came to the Senate in 1980. The issue has important ramifications because chairmanships, which come with money to hire large staffs, could be at stake.
Reid aides say the majority leader did not make a flat commitment to honor the Pennsylvania lawmaker’s seniority, telling him he would try but the issue would have to go before the Democratic rank-and-file.
The Senate approved a resolution Tuesday making Specter the most junior Democrat on the committees on which he serves. The resolution was passed after an agreement was reached between leadership in both parties and Specter, said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid.