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One on One With Senator Arlen Specter, Part Two

One on One With Senator Arlen Specter (as published in The Philadelphia Bulletin)

Freindly Fire recently interviewed U.S. Senator Arlen Specter in his Capitol office. The following is the second in a three part series with the longest serving Senator in the history of Pennsylvania.

FF: One more question on the illegal immigration issue. Philadelphia City Council recently voted down a resolution that would have required the police to check the citizenship status of everyone arrested for a felony. What is your position on this resolution?

AS: I think that people who are are arrested– and who are undocumented— ought to have a determination made on guilt or innocence in a deportation proceeding. I think the check on immigration status ought to be done immediately. The police complain that you can’t threaten to deport people who are undocumented, because (if you do) you won’t have witnesses come forward, which is a valid consideration. But that goes (away) once you have the issue of criminal conduct. I don’t think there is any justification for not asking—when someone is undocumented and has committed a crime.

FF: What is your feeling on the Mexican long haul trucks being able to freely access US highways? There is fierce opposition to this by groups citing the trucks’ less-than-stellar safety record and the fact that they are big polluters.

AS: I think it’s fundamentally a safety issue— there is a lot of evidence (to that effect). Until that is resolved, you have to place limits on it. I co-sponsored the Dorgan/Specter amendment to the Transportation Appropriations bill (prohibiting the Mexican trucks from coming into the U.S. until the issues are resolved. The amendment passed.)

FF: You have been outspoken for the need to protect civil rights while effectively prosecuting the war on terror. Can you comment on what you think is the proper role for eavesdropping, warrantless searches and FISA courts?

AS: It’s important to have adequate, powerful law enforcement—that’s why I took the lead on the Patriot Act. I got it through the Judiciary Committee, I managed it on the floor, and we got it passed. It has a lot of broad power. When it comes to wiretapping, I believe that you have to follow established procedures on showing probable cause to get a warrant. I tried very hard, and finally succeeded, in getting the Terrorist Surveillance Program under my support. The President has a legitimate argument that his constitutional authority, as Commander-in-Chief under Article II, superseded the statute. But that had to have a judicial determination. You don’t have that (power) just because the President says so…that’s up to the Court. There was a legitimate constitutional basis for the President saying he wasn’t bound by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), but you have to go to Court.

I am very critical of the Bush Administration putting that program into effect, and not following the National Security Act which mandates —yes, mandates— that he tell the Intelligence Committee. Or maybe he’d say that his constitutional power overrides that Act, too. He’s never said that, by the way. He’s just ignored the Act. But at least tell the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee—and I’m the Chairman of Judiciary.

There have to be checks and balances in our society. He claims he went to the so-called Gang of Four, the leaders of the House and Senate, but there’s a big controversy as to whether that was done. You have the issue playing out right now—the President wants retroactive immunity for telephone companies. And I’m opposed to it. If you cut off the courts, you don’t have checks and balances. And the Congress has not been effective on checks and balances. We have a big fight with the President on his not producing Karl Rove and Harriet Miers. For Congress to bring a contempt citation is not effective. So my idea is to substitute…the government as the part of “defendant” for the telephone companies. Stand in the shoes of those companies. Governmental immunity is something the telephone companies don’t have, and the government should not have it as to this suit. I don’t think those lawsuits are going to produce any money for anyone, but I would not cut out the courts. It is really perilous….

FF: But a complaint among some in law enforcement is that it takes so long to get a FISA warrant, averaging ninety days. Is there a way to streamline the process?

AS: They can do it. They can get an emergency warrant. They have a period of time after the warrant (is issued) to go to court. So the “emergency” argument doesn’t stand up.

FF: You have traveled extensively throughout the world, in particular to Afghanistan and the Middle East. Some have criticized your meetings with Arab leaders, especially the Syrian President. Do such trips send a mixed message in that the State Department may be saying one thing, but several U.S. Senators are saying another? Should the United States deal with leaders such as Assad, with allegations that he has links to terrorists and is involved in the narcotics trade?

AS: The Congress has constitutional authority on foreign policy matters. We have to confirm our ambassadors. The Senate and the House have very extensive responsibilities on foreign policy. Appropriations, foreign operations subcommittees, foreign aid, ratification of treaties, approval of the defense budget, the state department budget. I think members of Congress have been very helpful over the years. One of my ideas is to have a parliamentary exchange with the Iranians. I have taken the lead in initiating a letter signed by Senators Biden, Dodd, Congressman Lantos, and other Republican and Democrats to have this exchange. And I’ve discussed it with President Bush, who thinks it’s a good idea. He thinks parliamentarian people-to-people contact is good idea.

I’ve participated in a lot of meetings with the Syrians, taking messages…on my last trip, I took a message from the federal government to Assad. So I think the role is a very constructive one. I think that we’re making a big mistake by not having a dialogue with Iran. We had one with North Korea, and it’s produced some significant progress. We think we’re on our way (with them). We made a deal with them; whether they live up to it remains to be seen. Quaddafi, as I frequently say, is the worst terrorist in the history of the world. He blew up Pan Am 103, blew up the discotheque, and now he’s made reparations. I spoken extensively about this…including an article I wrote in The Washington Quarterly that goes into detail about my views in this area, and the successes I’ve had in (having) these conversations…things I’ve accomplished with Assad.

FF: Speaking of Iran, let’s go back to the intense controversy that surrounded President Ahmadinejad when he spoke at Columbia. What are your thoughts— should have been allowed to speak? Why?

AS: I think that America is proof positive of the value of freedom of speech, the marketplace of ideas. The more he talks, the better we look! Oliver Wendell Holmes said, in a famous Supreme Court decision, “Time has upset many fighting faiths”.

FF: Please give your insight on this political peculiarity. The Bush Administration has demonstrated its commitment to Israel through immense aid and friendship, and the United States eliminated a direct threat to that nation by removing Saddam Hussein from power. Bush has also kept intense pressure on Ahmadinejad, given his statements advocating the destruction of Israel. Despite these positions, many American Jewish voters are vehemently opposed to George Bush and the Iraq war. Why is this the case when many of these individuals state that Israel’s security is of paramount importance?

AS: I think that Bush has gotten additional support (because his policies in those areas), but the Jewish voters have a lot of different interests. The domestic programs, such as spending on education and healthcare are very important. Stem cell research is very important. So it’s a lot of issues, balancing a lot of factors.

FF: Let’s shift gears to racial relations. The majority of blacks were Republican, proud to be in the Party of Lincoln, all the way through the 1930’s, yet their alliance with the GOP has shrunk considerably, to the point where George Bush captured only 8% in the 2000 election. However, you have traditionally garnered more support from black voters than most Republicans. What happened to that alliance, and what has to be done to bring them back home to the GOP, since many believe in core Republican values (school choice, tough law enforcement, against same-sex marriage, etc.)?

AS: A critical factor is paying more attention to the inner cities—housing, education, job training. It’s issues. That really is the kernel. And the Republicans haven’t done that (paid attention to those issues). As District Attorney, I had a large portion of my staff who were African-American…you can tell it in the hiring.

FF: In much the same way as black voters, many rank-and-file union members are Republican in beliefs and values, if not registration. Yet the GOP has not been able to effectively connect with either of them—some Republicans even write off those constituencies since they assume they won’t garner many of their votes in the short term. Your thoughts?

AS: There are a lot of Republicans in labor, but overall, I think the Democrats are more sympathetic to the labor issues; they take more of a stand on issues like unemployment compensation and prevailing wage rates. There are some Republicans who do, but I would say the balance is with the Democrats. It comes back again to the theme which runs through a lot of what I have to say, and that’s “issues”.

FF: A follow-up question on labor— the card-check issue (whereby a union could be organized by 50% plus one of employees signing an authorization forms [cards]; this procedure would eliminate secret-ballot elections). Does card-check take away the fundamental right of employees to have a free and fair election?

AS: I voted for cloture to take up the issue because there hasn’t been labor law reform in this country in about thirty years, going back to the seventies. There need to be some major changes with the National Labor Relations (Board). There need to be procedures expedited…cases last as long as five years, or more. I made a very extensive floor statement on the subject, and I did not vote to take away the right for a secret-ballot. I did not do that. My vote was to take up the issue and decide it. I’ve gotten very deeply involved in it…I’ve brought in all the members of the NLRB and talked to them about what’s going on. I’ve written a Law Review article on this. And I’m not finished. Business has a major interest in expediting those elections. The NLRB is essentially dysfunctional because it has abandoned its adjudicatory function and has become very biased. Both ways—Democrats and Republicans. That’s another illustration of what I do… which is to be “issue-oriented”. Before I cast that vote, I called up a lot of people and told them what I was doing and why.

I didn’t rush in there and vote for cloture!

Part Three will discuss Senator Specter’s economic stimulus legislation, the role of the Senate, and his accomplishments.

Chris Freind can be reached at

January 28, 2008 at 5:16 am
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