Washington (AP) - 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."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., indicated later that the deal was not final and had to be worked out.
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 becoming a Democrat, 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 later asked Specter about the Coleman remark, Specter said, "I forgot what team I was on."
Specter's actions set the stage for the Senate Democrats' move on Tuesday denying him his seniority, according to Democratic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions had been private.
But Democrats also recognized that alienating Specter, a former prosecutor, could be politically disastrous as President Barack Obama prepared to name a replacement for retiring Justice David Souter. Specter has served as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, its top Republican and has considerable clout in committee proceedings.
The resolution was intended to placate other Democrats concerned that Specter's switch might leapfrog him into a full committee chairmanship and bump one of them. It also served to remind Specter where he stands with his new colleagues in the Democratic caucus.
The Crime and Drugs panel, Democratic officials said, seemed a good compromise. It 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 for Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Durbin said Reid had 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.
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.