(CNSNews.com) - More than 30 conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives are angered that the head of one of America's foremost conservative groups has endorsed the 2004 re-election bid of Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter.
American Conservative Union (ACU) Chairman David Keene is drawing fire for backing Specter, who has a lifetime rating from the ACU of 47 percent, over Rep. Pat Toomey, who has a lifetime ACU rating of 97 percent. Toomey is challenging Specter for the 2004 Republican nomination.
In a May 21 op-ed piece in The Hill newspaper, Keene said Specter was a "standup guy."
"He isn't always with us, but you can take his word to the bank," Keene wrote, noting that Specter fought for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's nomination and "in demanding needed reforms of the FBI in the wake of Sept. 11.
"That should count in a world in which most elected officials don't have the courage to disagree with anybody," Keene wrote. "It may not count with many conservatives, but it counts with me."
The move prompted a May 22 letter from the 33 House Republicans to the ACU's board of directors expressing "dismay" over Keene's support for Specter, whom the congressmen described as "liberal."
"Mr. Keene's action has brought discredit and embarrassment to your fine organization," the letter stated. The GOP House members signing the letter have received ACU lifetime ratings (given by the ACU based on lawmakers' voting record in accordance with the organization's policy positions) ranging from 84 to 100 percent.
"We are proud of the high ratings we've received from your organization. Unfortunately, Mr. Keene's action makes a complete mockery of those very ratings," the letter from the congressmen alleged.
ACU Executive Director Stephen Thayer responded in a June 5 letter, saying Keene's column was "his personal view" and did not "reflect the stance of the ACU," which had formally thrown its support behind Toomey April 7.
"David wears a number of 'hats,'" the ACU letter stated, noting Keene's membership on the National Rifle Association's board, his role as syndicated columnist for The Hill and the fact that he is a registered lobbyist for the D.C.-based Carmen Group.
"He also tries to make sure that those he deals with in any of his capacities knows which 'hat' he is wearing," Thayer's letter stated. "[Keene] has a right to his personal views, and I am sorry some confused them with the views of the ACU."
National Review columnist Ramesh Ponnuru told CNSNews.com it was "ludicrous to separate his (Keene's) role as head of the ACU from his column endorsing Arlen Specter," noting that Keene was identified as ACU chairman underneath his column in The Hill.
Ponnuru took Keene to task in a May 28 National Review column, noting that "Keene is frequently listed as doing lobbying work that concerns the Senate Appropriations Committee: for example, lobbying on the appropriations bill that funds the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)." Ponnuru further pointed out that Specter chairs the Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
"It is and ought to be disturbing to many conservatives that David Keene has a conflict of interest between his lobbying work and his job as the head of the ACU," Ponnuru told CNSNews.com.
Ponnuru wrote in his column that "a less compromised version of the American Conservative Union may well be in order."
The Club for Growth, a self-described "pro-growth" and "economic conservative" organization in Washington, D.C., endorsed Toomey for the 2004 Senate race. According to David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, Keene is out of touch with American conservatives. During an interview with CNSNews.com, Keating labeled Specter a "big-spending Republican."
"This year, Senators George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) got a huge amount of attention for almost sinking President Bush's tax cut, but what a lot of people seem to have forgotten is that Specter played almost the exact same role two years ago," Keating said. "He did support efforts to cut the (2001) tax cut by a huge chunk - $450 billion - which was rejected in the Senate, but not through lack of trying by Specter."
Specter has been quoted, by among others the Wall Street Journal, as defending his voting record. "I've voted for many conservative issues," including "a ban on partial birth abortion and increased spending on abstinence programs.
"When someone characterizes me as a liberal, it's ridiculous. I don't even agree with the term 'moderate,'" Specter was quoted as saying.
Yet a May 3 Wall Street Journal op-ed noted: "No matter how he self-identifies, the senator has voted for five major tax increases, and his spending habits rank him second-worst among GOP senators, according to Citizens Against Government Waste."
The Journal op-ed also pointed out that Specter voted against former President Ronald Reagan more than any other Republican senator in 1986 and 1987, "yet managed to vote with President Clinton a majority of the time in six of his eight years in the Oval Office.
"As a member of the Judiciary Committee in 1987, Mr. Specter played a key role in defeating Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork," the Journal op-ed stated. "In October 1999, he voted with the Democrats on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And he couldn't bring himself to take a stand on Mr. Clinton's impeachment. Citing Scottish law, he voted 'not proven' and further muddled things with Clintonian statements like, 'I think it's important to make a distinction that I do not believe that the president is not guilty.'"
In an interview with the Allentown Times, from his home district in Allentown, Pa., Toomey said Specter "doesn't share" the principles of the Republican Party.
"Arlen Specter is a liberal politician, he has a liberal philosophy, is outside the mainstream of the Republican Party, and he spent 23 years actively obstructing the enactment of the principles of the Republican Party," Toomey said in the interview.
In endorsing Specter, Keene called conservative critics of the senator "wrong," adding: "I've known and worked with Specter for more than a decade. I wish he were with us all the time, but that line of attack is neither accurate nor fair."
While Specter may lack endorsements from the ACU and other conservative organizations, President Bush is with him, and Vice President Dick Cheney is slated to speak on Specter's behalf during the campaign. White House spokesperson Scott Stanzel told CNSNews.com that it "supports Republican incumbents."
In addition, junior Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told CNSNews.com: "Although we do not see eye-to-eye on every issue, Senator Specter is very much a team player, casting key votes favoring tax cuts and partial birth abortion. Together, Senator Specter and I are able to work in the best interest of the citizens of Pennsylvania."
But according to a March 10 Weekly Standard op-ed, "This is a race between a Republican who's been a thorn in the side of his party for 22 years versus a rising Republican superstar who for five years has been carrying his party's torch."
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