Odd Couple's Friendship Powers Senate panel
By Steve Goldstein
The Philadelphia Inquirer
WASHINGTON - They are odd bedfellows: one a Sinatra buff and the other a Deadhead, a Jewish urban sophisticate and an Irish-Italian from Ben & Jerry's land, an irascible Republican from a city of Democrats and a mellow Democrat from a GOP bastion.
But Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter and Vermont's Patrick Leahy have teamed to make the Judiciary Committee perhaps the most productive panel in the Senate.
As chairman and senior Democrat, the pair have conducted confirmation hearings for two Supreme Court nominees, held hearings on controversial issues ranging from torture and the Guantanamo detention to domestic spy programs, and reported out legislation on the Patriot Act, immigration and asbestos litigation.
At the root of this productivity, say fellow senators and political analysts, is the relationship between Specter, 76, and Leahy, 66, who have served on the committee together for 25 years.
Both former prosecutors, they speak almost daily when the Senate is in session and regularly when it is not - "almost as often as with our wives," Leahy says.
"I think they have a long-standing personal relationship that enables them to get ahead of problems, and there is a mutual respect," said committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Another member, Democrat Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, said: "I think they both recognize that their common interests are served if they spend their energy and time trying to accommodate one another, as much as they can."
Leahy famously did not get along with Specter's predecessor as chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the cool relationship froze much of the panel's activity.
Leahy became particularly irate several years ago when Hatch invoked a rule - wrongly, in Leahy's view - to cut off debate in the committee on a judicial nominee, and the downhill relationship tilted to near vertical.
"Specter doesn't come from the same political ideology as Hatch," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who served under both chairmen. "Hatch is more conservative, and Specter has never been accused of that."
Longtime panel member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Specter was a more "consultative" chairman than Hatch.
"I think Specter consults with Leahy and takes his views into consideration," she explained. "I think that means a great deal to Sen. Leahy."
For his part, Hatch has told Specter that he "marvels" at his relationship with Leahy.
Philadelphia attorney Carolyn Short, who served for a year as Specter's general counsel, said that from the day Specter hired her he told her to consult with Leahy's staff.
"It was a respect issue," she said. "`If we want to get anything done,' he told me, `we have to have the minority on board.'"
A stiff test of the relationship was the scheduling of the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Samuel Alito. The White House and Republicans on the committee were pressing for a pre-Christmas session, thus shortening the window for Alito's opposition.
Leahy told Specter his staff was exhausted from the hearings for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the short-circuited nomination of Harriet Miers. Specter responded to the personal plea and incurred White House ire by delaying the hearing until January.
"If an issue can go either way, and Patrick needs something for either personal or party grounds, I'm going to listen to him," Specter said. "If we have to disagree, I'm going to make sure it's something consequential."
Specter said his tendency to accommodation has not cost him anything with his GOP colleagues. But Democrats have sometimes been critical of Leahy for not being aggressive enough, and some were displeased when Leahy sided with Specter on an asbestos reform bill.
Specter also bonded with Leahy when he was stricken with Hodgkin's disease. Leahy's wife had also had a recent cancer scare.
After Specter lost his hair from chemotherapy, Leahy sent him a photograph of the two "bald brothers," which Specter has hanging in his Capitol hideaway office.
The pair met in 1970 when the National District Attorneys Association held its summer meeting in Philadelphia and the local D.A. - Specter - played host.
"We really got along well; both he and Joan did a lot to make us welcome," recalled Leahy.
They kept in touch. Leahy was elected in 1974, the only Democrat ever elected to the Senate from Vermont. Specter was elected in 1980 and they renewed their friendship.
Their shared prosecutorial background is accompanied by a passion for oversight of governmental actions.
"We both believe the Senate should not be a rubber stamp for any administration," Leahy said.
When Specter took over the committee in January 2005, he and Leahy were aware of the contentious issues that would face them.
"We wanted to lower the rancor," Leahy said. "We wanted people to look at us and say this is the way the Senate should be run."
They have had pronounced success. University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias noted the remarkable productivity of the panel and said a committee "operates more smoothly when there is close cooperation between the chairman and the ranking member."
Specter and Leahy sit side by side at hearings. Leahy often pulls out photos of his grandkids. Specter shares a joke. Even during the hearings, the banter continues.
"Pat likes to talk during the hearings," Specter said. "I get a little edgy because we're making noise. But he's always turning my microphone off to talk to me."
Getting between a politician and a microphone. Only a trusted friend could do that.