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Without Specter, Will Maine Senators Vote for Dawn Johnsen?
By Andrew Ramonas | April 15, 2022 9:16 pm

Sen. Arlen Specter’s political troubles in Pennsylvania are creating a hurdle to Dawn Johnsen’s confirmation as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

The five-term Pennsylvania Republican barely eeked out a win in the 2004 GOP Senate primary. Part of a dwindling Republican moderate coalition in the Senate, Specter now faces another tough primary battle next year, made all the more difficult because many moderate Republicans are believed to have switched their party registration to vote for Barack Obama in last year’s presidential election.

Specter has already taken flack for being one of only three Senate Republicans to vote for the $787 billion Obama stimulus package in February. A vote now to confirm the liberal Johnsen, a former legal director for the abortion rights group now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America and a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s legal policies authorizing torture, could be a step too far left for the 79-year-old ranking Senate Judiciary Committee Republican.

Sens. Arlen Specter and Susan Collins leave a meeting in February with Majority Leader Harry Reid about the stimulus package. (Getty Images)

Sens. Arlen Specter and Susan Collins leave a meeting in February with Majority Leader Harry Reid about the stimulus package. (Getty Images)

Specter is considered key because his vote for Johnsen could provide cover to Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the other Republicans who voted for the stimulus package and are now facing grief from conservatives.
A spokesman for a Senate Judiciary Republican told Main Justice he was confident the GOP conference would be united against Johnsen. Senate Democratic aides said they’re not so sure, and added that Senate Democrats don’t intend to duck from a fight that would showcase issues about which many of them — and their Democratic base — feel strongly.

Snowe’s press secretary would not comment on how the senator plans to vote. Collins press secretary did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Specter has shown ambivalence over Johnsen. In March, he declined to register a vote for or against Johnsen in committee. The Judiciary panel sent her nomination to the full Senate by a vote of 11 to 7, split along party lines.

Specter spoke with Johnsen after she was approved by his committee, and is still deciding whether to vote for her confirmation when she goes before the full Senate, a Republican aide said.

“There are parts of her record which are very difficult to understand,” Specter said in a statement. “She has taken a position on a number of issues which raise real questions in my mind about her competency to handle this important job.”

Senate Democrats control 56 seats and generally have the votes of two Senate independents in their caucus. Democrats, however, need the support of two Republicans to overcome any filibuster against Johnsen, assuming the outcome of the disputed Minnesota Senate race remains unresolved.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona have criticized Johnsen for her position on abortion rights and her strong disapproval of Bush administration legal memos used to justify torture against suspected terrorists.
“Senator Kyl does not believe her nomination should go forward and he thinks that most Senate Republicans feel the same way,” said Ryan Patmintra, Kyl’s press secretary.

Former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey announced Wednesday that he will run against Specter in next year’s GOP Pennsylvania Senate primary. Toomey, who recently resigned as president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, lost to Specter in the 2004 primary by less than 2 percent of the vote. Toomey’s strong conservative credentials are another factor pressuring Specter to align himself with Senate Republicans against Johnsen.

No date has been set for a confirmation vote on Johnsen. On Monday the Senate is slated to hold confirmation votes on three other top-level DOJ nominees: Lanny Breuer for Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division; Tony West for Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, and Christine Varney for Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division.


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