Former Sen. Arlen Specter Dies at 82

National Journal Staff
National Journal

Former Sen. Arlen Specter died on Sunday at 82 after a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A high-profile figure on Supreme Court nominations and other judicial issues, he served as a senator from Pennsylvania from 1980 to 2011, making him the state's longest-serving senator.

Specter was first elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1980, but in April 2009 he shook up national politics by announcing his switch to the Democratic Party. The move helped give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats in the Senate. But Specter’s party switch did not go as well as he had planned; he lost his bid for a sixth term after losing in the Democratic Senate primary in 2010 to Joe Sestak.

"Arlen Specter was always a fighter," President Obama said in a statement. "From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent -- never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve. He brought that same toughness and determination to his personal struggles, using his own story to inspire others."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a tweet calling Specter "a dear friend who served his state and nation with honor and distinction. RIP." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in another tweet: "America is better today because of Arlen Specter. He will dearly be missed."

Specter grew up in Russell, Kan. His father was a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine, who worked as a tailor and a peddler, owned a junkyard, and sent his four children through college. Specter moved with his family to Philadelphia at age 17 and attended the University of Pennsylvania. After college, he served in the Air Force, graduated from Yale Law School and practiced law in Philadelphia.

In 1964, he was a top staffer for the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and helped develop the "single-bullet theory" that a lone gunman was responsible. Specter then returned to his law practice and ran as a Republican for district attorney in Democratic Philadelphia in 1965 and 1969. In 1973, he lost his re-election bid. After losing subsequent bids for the U.S. Senate and governor, Specter won an open Senate seat in 1980. He later ran for president in 1995, but withdrew before the first caucus or primary.

Throughout his career, Specter sided with conservatives on some divisive issues, and with liberals on others, building up no permanent credit with either. He was aggressive and prosecutorial, well-prepared and persuasive once he took a stand. His voting record for years had been almost precisely at the midpoint of the Senate, and he played key roles on countless issues. He favored abortion rights, pushed tough penalties for crime and supported capital punishment.

On many issues, Specter was one of the few Republicans to vote with Senate Democrats, including on the Republican tax cut in August 1999, on the minimum wage in November 1999, on the federal tobacco lawsuit in July 2000, and on overtime regulations in 2003 and 2005.

On a closely divided and rancorous Judiciary Committee, he played a key role in several Supreme Court nominations. Specter often backed trial lawyers on legal issues and was in a position of considerable influence after he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 2005, despite opposition from some conservative Republicans.

He angered many Democrats in 1991 with his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing. But he delighted them years later during President Bill Clinton's Senate impeachment trial when he invoked Scottish law by calling the allegations against Clinton "not proven" and that the president was "therefore not guilty."

Specter, who had serious health problems in recent years, played a major role in encouraging medical research. He cited his own experiences with a brain tumor and with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for which he underwent chemotherapy for several months first in 2005 and then again in 2008, all without missing a Senate session. He wrote a book on the subject called, Never Give In: Battling Cancer—and Politicians—in the Senate. From his perch on the Appropriations Committee, Specter worked with Sen. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to help double the National Institutes of Health budget over five years. He also backed federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research.

In politically marginal Pennsylvania, without a firm base in either party, Specter never had an entirely safe seat. Yet, he still managed to become the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history.

Republicans’ Senate losses in 2008 made Specter’s frequent departures from party orthodoxy more visible and potentially decisive. On the new Obama administration’s nominations, Specter characteristically took a mixed approach. He supported Eric Holder for attorney general after his explanation of his role in several pardons at the end of the Clinton administration, but opposed Timothy Geithner for Treasury secretary after it was revealed that Geithner had failed to pay self-employment taxes.

In February 2009, as the Democrats’ economic stimulus bill was being debated in the Senate but was still short of the needed 60 votes, Specter entered negotiations with Reid, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. After some $145 billion was cut from the plan, Specter joined fellow moderates Collins and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, as the only Republicans to vote for the final package.

“I believe that my duty is to follow my conscience and vote what I think is in the best interest of the country. And the political risks will have to abide,” Specter said of the vote.

In April 2009, Specter announced he was switching parties, as he had done shortly before he was elected district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965 (from Democrat to Republican). He acknowledged he could not win a Republican primary, and he said he did not want his 30-year record in the Senate judged by Republican primary voters. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former Gov. Ed Rendell all said they would campaign for Specter in 2010, and Reid said that he would get credit for seniority as a Democrat. But the leaders promised more than they could deliver.

The Senate Democratic Caucus refused to honor Specter’s seniority. That decision dashed Specter’s hope of becoming chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing labor and health and human services programs, and he even found himself sitting in the junior-most chair on the Judiciary Committee, which just a few years earlier he had so forcefully chaired.

After leaving the Senate in 2011, Specter started his own law firm. He also returned to his alma mater the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2011 to teach a course at the law school on the relationship between Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, with a particular focus on the confirmation process. It’s an issue Specter knew well after participating in the hearings of 14 nominees to the Supreme Court, including the confirmation fights involving Robert Bork and Thomas.

“I think the Supreme Court needs to be better understood, and one of the ways to have it understood is to televise the court, which is something I’ve been trying to do for virtually my entire Senate career,” Specter told Penn Current, a university publication, last year.

In December, Specter also took a turn at comedy, doing a stand-up routine at an open-mike night at a Philadelphia comedy club. “I’ve been in comedy now for 30 years — the only difference is that it’s not stand-up,” Specter quipped.