by Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
Former senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, an irascible moderate who served for three decades in a Senate increasingly dominated by conservatives and liberals, died Sunday. He was 82.
Specter died Sunday morning at his home in Philadelphia from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his son Shanin told the Associated Press.
Throughout 30 tumultuous years, Specter refused to toe either the Republican or Democratic party line. A Republican for nearly all his life, he nonetheless opposed Robert Bork's Supreme Court confirmation in 1987 and President Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1999.
He infuriated Democrats in 1991 with his prosecutorial questioning of Anita Hill, a law professor who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Specter's interrogation helped put Thomas on the high court.
After President Obama took office in 2009, Specter provided key votes for the Democrats' $831 billion economic stimulus package and health care overhaul.
Specter's career in Washington began with the election of Ronald Reagan and continued through 20 years of Republican administrations and 10 years under Democrats. He switched to the Democratic Party in 2009 to avoid a challenge from conservative Republican Pat Toomey, who nearly defeated him in 2004, but he lost a Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak - who in turn lost to Toomey.
The party switch, which Vice President Biden helped to engineer behind the scenes, temporarily gave Democrats the 60th vote they needed to overcome Republican filibusters against President Obama's health care overhaul.
"I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party," Specter said upon switching sides.
Later in 2009, Specter got a dose of the growing Tea Party rebellion when he appeared at a town hall meeting in Philadelphia alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The raucous scene that followed, aired on newscasts and posted on YouTube, would shake Democrats, embolden Republicans and force the White House to accelerate its health care strategy. It nearly succeeded in upending Obama's initiative.
Diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 2005 and treated again in 2008, Specter had twice beaten cancer before finally succumbing to it. Even while battling the disease a third time this year, he gamely issued a statement acknowledging "another battle I intend to win" and alluding to his many avocations.
"I'm grateful for all the well wishes I've received," Specter said. "I'm looking forward to getting back to work, to the comedy stage, to the squash court and to the ballpark."
He had bounced back from serious health problems before, including heart bypass surgery and the removal of a benign brain tumor.
'The man in the middle'
Specter's Senate career was best known for his time on the Judiciary Committee, which he chaired briefly from 2005 to 2007 before Democrats regained control of the body. He called himself "the man in the middle" on the committee - meaning figuratively as well as literally.
Unlike nearly all other Republicans on the panel - and, for that matter, in the Senate and the full Congress - Specter was a staunch defender of abortion rights who never wanted to see a more conservative Supreme Court overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
"President Bush's mantra is 'follow the law, don't make the law,'" Specter once said. "Well, if you're going to follow the law, you have a very strong doctrine of stare decisis to deal with on Roe v. Wade."
He tried to run for president as an abortion rights Republican in 1996, again drawing the ire of conservatives, but he failed to make it as far as the primaries.
Specter's other major claim to fame in the Senate was as chairman or top Republican on the Appropriations Committee panel with jurisdiction over health, education and labor. He used the position to help double funding for medical research at the National Institutes of Health. Upon his cancer diagnosis in 2005, he said, "I may be a direct beneficiary."
Specter was born in Wichita on Abraham Lincoln's birthday of Feb. 12, 1930, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who sewed clothes and ran a junkyard to make ends meet. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School with a stint in the Air Force in between.
In 1963-64, Specter joined the investigation of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. He developed the single-bullet theory that led the Warren Commission to conclude Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
He began his career as a Democratic assistant district attorney in Philadelphia but switched parties and won election as district attorney in 1965. He was defeated for re-election in 1973 and in GOP primaries for the Senate in 1976 and governor in 1978.
Specter is survived by his wife of 59 years, Joan; two sons and four granddaughters. A public funeral was scheduled for Tuesday in Penn Valley, Pa.
'A vastly different place'
In a Senate floor speech before leaving the institution, Specter called it "a vastly different place than it was when I was elected in 1980" and lamented the dwindling ranks of centrists.
"Moderates and some conservatives have fallen like flies at the hands of the extremists in both parties," he said, ticking off a list of lawmakers rejected by voters.
"Politics is routinely described as the art of the possible or the art of compromise," he said. "When one party insists on ideological purity, compromise is thwarted, and the two-party system fails to function."