Sen. Arlen Specter (D)
Elected: 1980, term expires 2010, 5th term.
Born: Feb. 12, 1930, Wichita, KS .
Education: U. of PA, B.A. 1951, Yale U., LL.B. 1956.
Family: Married (Joan); 2 children.
Military career: Air Force, 1951–53.
Elected office: Philadelphia dist. atty., 1965–73.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1955–56, 1974–80; Asst. cnsl., Warren Comm., 1964; PA asst. atty. gen., 1964–65.
Arlen Specter is Pennsylvania’s senior senator. He was elected 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 in 2009.
|Arlen Specter (R)||2,925,080||(53%)||($20,307,099)|
|Joe Hoeffel (D)||2,334,126||(42%)||($4,540,209)|
|James Clymer (CNP)||220,056||(4%)||($212,896)|
|Arlen Specter (R)||530,839||(51%)|
|Pat Toomey (R)||513,693||(49%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (61%), 1992 (49%), 1986 (56%), 1980 (50%)
Specter grew up in Russell, Kan., also the hometown of former Republican presidential candidate and Senator Bob Dole. His father was a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who worked as a tailor and a peddler, owned a junkyard, and sent four children through college. Specter came to Philadelphia at age 17 to attend 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 Kennedy assassination and helped develop the single-bullet theory that a lone gunman was responsible. (At one point, he held assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s weapon and aimed it out the Texas Schoolbook Depository window toward Dealey Plaza.) Specter then returned to his law practice and, dismayed by what he considered corruption, ran as a Republican for district attorney in Democratic Philadelphia in 1965 and 1969. As district attorney, he hired as his assistant a young lawyer from New York named Ed Rendell, who is now the Pennsylvania governor. In 1973, he lost his re-election bid. He tried to restart his political career but was beaten in Republican primaries for senator in 1976 and governor in 1978. In 1980, Specter ran for the Senate again. He narrowly (36%-33%) edged out a former state Republican chairman in the primary and beat a low-spending Democrat 50%-48% in the general election. In 1986, he won re-election by 56%-43%. In 1992, he was only barely re-elected by 49%-46% after he became a target of feminists for his questioning of law professor Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, which focused on Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas. Specter ran for president in 1995 but withdrew before the first caucus or primary.
Throughout this career of narrow victories, Specter’s assets have been brains and hard work. He is respected by colleagues and constituents, though with his tendency toward arrogance, he is not always well-liked. He has sided with conservatives on some divisive issues, and with liberals on others, building up no permanent credit with either. He is aggressive and prosecutorial, well-prepared and persuasive once he takes a stand. These traits are both his strengths and weaknesses. They explain why he was vulnerable in 1992, and why he won. His voting record for years has been almost precisely at the midpoint of the Senate, and he has played key roles on countless issues. He is pro-abortion rights, he pushes tough penalties for crime, and he supports capital punishment. On a closely divided and rancorous Judiciary Committee, he played a key role on several Supreme Court nominations. More than anyone else, he defeated ultra conservative nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and, more than anyone except for then Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, he secured Thomas’ confirmation in 1991. On many issues, Specter has been one of the few Republicans voting with Senate Democrats—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.
Specter has often backed trial lawyers on legal issues, opposing a $250,000 limit on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases, arguing that there should be no limit for egregious cases of severe bodily impairment, disfigurement or death. (His son, Shanin Specter, is a Philadelphia malpractice lawyer.) In April 2005, he proposed a $140 billion trust fund, to be financed by asbestos manufacturers and insurers, to compensate people who have asbestos-caused disease. It was opposed by powerful Democrats like Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, who wanted trial lawyers to be able to press pending cases, and also by Republicans who had other reservations. The Judiciary Committee approved the bill, but in January 2006 it lost on the Senate floor by one vote.
Specter was in a position of considerable influence after he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 2005, although conservative Republicans had tried to deny him the posting. After he warned President George W. Bush not to nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion, abortion opponents protested his appointment as chairman and then-Majority Leader Bill Frist pointedly refrained from endorsing him. But the Bush White House weighed in on his behalf as did all the Judiciary Committee Republicans. And he had to eat his earlier words on Roe v. Wade: “I have not and would not use a litmus test to deny confirmation to pro-life nominees,” Specter said.
As chairman, he was pressed by many Republicans to block Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees, the so-called “nuclear option” that would have disrupted longstanding prerogatives of senators to filibuster. Instead, he urged Frist to seek accommodation with Democrats, which ultimately resulted in formation of a bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators that reached a compromise on the issue. Specter presided over the confirmation of John Roberts to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He backed the White House’s refusal to turn over memos Roberts wrote while in the solicitor general’s office, a stand endorsed by former solicitor generals of both parties. He sharply admonished liberal Democrats Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joe Biden of Delaware, both former chairmen of the committee, to let Roberts complete his answers without interruption. After the hearings, he announced his support of Roberts and the committee approved him 13-5. In October, after Harriet Miers’ nomination was withdrawn, he said she was the victim of a “one-sided debate” and could not survive “the heavy decibel level against her.” When Samuel Alito was nominated in 2005, committee opinion was split on party lines, but Alito was confirmed by the Senate, 58-42.
In 2005, Specter worked for reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Bush administration’s main anti-terrorism law, which the Senate passed with more restrictions than the House measure. Several Senate Republicans had qualms about the measure and blocked agreement on the conference report in December, but the bill passed in March 2006. When The New York Times reported that month that the National Security Agency was conducting surveillance of communications between al Qaeda terrorism suspects abroad and persons in the United States, Specter said that the action violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. He introduced a bill requiring that surveillance of U.S. citizens in the country must be conducted according to FISA, streamlining the approval process in the FISA court and requiring individual warrants for surveillance targets. But other committee Republicans failed to back Specter and the bill did not come to the floor. In the controversy over suspected enemy combatants held in Guantanamo, Specter called for an independent commission to investigate incarceration policies. He visited Guantanamo in 2005, but the Defense Department blocked him from holding a hearing there. And in July 2007, he called for habeas corpus rights for unlawful combatants taken prisoner. He got 56 votes for the measure in September 2007, but fell short of the 60 needed to cut off a filibuster by opponents.
In 2006, Specter introduced his own immigration bills, a guest worker bill with no limit on numbers and stays up to six years, and a legalization bill providing for gold cards for eligible illegal aliens that could be renewed every two years indefinitely. Ultimately, the Senate passed a compromise worked out by Kennedy and Arizona Republican John McCain. But the House leadership refused to go to conference on the bill, and it died. In September, the House and Senate passed a bill authorizing a 700-mile fence along the Mexico border. In July 2007, after another attempt to pass a more comprehensive immigration bill failed, Specter called again for his version, which would provide legalization but not a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the United States. The following year, he introduced a bill for quicker deportations of illegal immigrants convicted of violent crimes.
In March 2007, Specter also weighed the alleged political firings of eight U.S. attorneys around the country, pressing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for an explanation of the firings. He concluded that the Justice Department would be better off if Gonzales resigned, but he did not expressly call for Bush’s attorney general to step down. In October 2007, Specter co-sponsored a media shield bill to protect reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources unless a judge rules otherwise. It passed the Judiciary Committee 15-2, and a similar bill passed the House, but Bush threatened a veto and it was stopped in its tracks.
Specter has brought his legalistic approach to foreign policy. In 1999, he sponsored an amendment to the annual defense bill invoking the War Powers Act to prevent the deployment of ground troops in the former Yugoslavia. It failed 52-48. During debate on the 2002 resolution authorizing military action in Iraq, Specter expressed doubts about whether Congress can delegate such authority to the president, but he voted for the resolution. In January 2007, he called for the president to agree to “sharing” the decision-making power in Iraq. “I would suggest respectfully to the president that he is not the sole decider,” Specter said. He called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from urban centers in Iraq and help train Iraqi troops. He was not swayed by Bush’s plan for a “surge” of troop strength in Iraq. “The current plan is not working, and 21,500 additional troops—it’s a snowball in July. It’s not going to work,” he said. In September 2007, he called for sending a United Nations peacekeeping force into Iraq. He also backed engagement with Syria. Specter defended Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after her April 2007 trip to Damascus, and in December 2007 traveled there with Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and offered to assist in negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Specter, who has had serious health problems in recent years, has played a major role in encouraging medical research. He cited his own experiences with a brain tumor and with stage IV-B 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. He and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, as their parties’ leaders on the health and human services appropriations subcommittee, shepherded the process of doubling the National Institutes of Health budget over five years from 1999 to 2004. He has supported federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research, which uses excess embryos from in vitro fertilization and is opposed by many conservatives. In September 2008, Specter criticized fellow Republicans for not reflecting nominee John McCain’s support for such research in the party platform.
In politically marginal Pennsylvania, without a firm base in either party, Specter has never had an entirely safe seat. Yet he has been, since November 2005, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history. (The old record was held by Republican Boies Penrose, who served from 1897 to 1921.) He has had opposition in each Republican primary. The most serious challenger was conservative U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, an opponent of abortion and advocate of tax cuts, who set out to run against him in 2004. Bush threw his weight behind Specter and sent White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card to a fundraiser for Specter in Toomey’s congressional district. But conservatives were arrayed against him. National Review called Specter “the worst Republican senator.” Former Judge Robert Bork and former Attorney General Edwin Meese supported Toomey and the anti-tax group Club for Growth raised $1 million for him and spent another $1 million on ads. But Specter had much more. He spent $15 million up through the April 2004 primary, and campaigned on his seniority and his seat on the Appropriations Committee. His campaign slogan was: “Courage. Clout. Convictions.” “I would say it’s an election to see if there’s going to be any place in the Republican Party for a big tent,” he said. Toomey’s message was that the party was letting an opportunity to govern “with a common sense conservative agenda” slip away by re-electing a liberal. But the message was undercut by frequent appearances for Specter by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Specter had not backed Santorum in his 1994 primary, but had provided him critical help in the general election that year.
After 24 years in the Senate, Specter won the primary by only 51%-49%. He carried metro Philadelphia 57%-43%, but Toomey carried metro Pittsburgh 58%-42%. Toomey won 2-to-1 in his 15th District in the Lehigh Valley and carried Lancaster and York counties in the Pennsylvania Dutch territory and several industrial counties in the ring around Pittsburgh. Perhaps decisive were Specter’s large majorities in most of the state’s small counties. “I have a very strong bond with the people of Pennsylvania. It comes from having visited every one of the counties,” he said.
In the general election, against U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel, a suburban Philadelphia Democrat, Specter trumpeted his differences with the Bush administration on issues like overtime pay for workers, private school tuition vouchers and embryonic-stem-cell research. Hoeffel protested that Specter was “meek, a supporter of the Bush program, which has alarmed a lot of moderates, with the budget deficits growing and the deceptions in Iraq and all the rest.” Specter had the money advantage. He spent $20.3 million to Hoeffel’s $4.5 million, and outspent Hoeffel by $1.2 million to $450,000 in the final weeks of the campaign. National Democrats were reluctant to pour money into an iffy race in a large and expensive state. In September, Specter was endorsed by the Philadelphia Black Clergy and the state AFL-CIO. In debates Specter relished taking the center position between Hoeffel, who had a very liberal voting record, and Constitution Party nominee James Clymer, who attacked him from the right and ended up winning 4% of the vote. Specter won 53%-42%, trailing 53%-47% in metro Philadelphia and leading 51%-49% in metro Pittsburgh. Specter won 25% among blacks, 48% in union households, and 23% among liberals. But his overall percentage of 53% was not much above Bush’s 48%.
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 he 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 Majority Leader Harry Reid, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. They cut some $145 billion from the plan, and Specter, Collins and fellow Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, voted for the final $787 billion version, the only three Republicans in the Senate to do so. Specter said, “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.”
But the risks didn’t abide. Toomey, who had been heading the Club for Growth, announced he would challenge Specter again in 2010, when he is up for re-election. Reid, Vice President Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats began discussions with Specter urging him to switch parties. But he demurred. On March 15, 2009, the head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO said he would pull out all the stops to try to re-elect Specter if Specter supported the unions’ card check bill, which would allow a union to form when a majority of workers sign a public declaration. But Specter declined, saying he could not support a bill that eliminated the secret ballot in union elections.
Reid said that Specter’s position pretty much precluded a party switch. But then polls were published showing Specter getting only about 30% of the vote in a hypothetical primary matchup with Toomey. Specter began to explore alternatives. On March 18, he declined to rule out an independent candidacy. But Pennsylvania does not allow a candidate defeated in a primary to file as an independent, as Joseph Lieberman did in Connecticut in 2006. (Lieberman went on to win as an independent.) In any event, Specter could not count on pulling supporters away from a strong challenger, as Lieberman did when he faced only a nuisance Republican challenger. Specter sounded out Republican state senators on changing Pennsylvania laws to allow independents to vote in party primaries, but they were not receptive.
With other options exhausted, Specter in April 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, Biden and Gov. 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 platform of the Judiciary Committee, which just a few years earlier he had so forcefully chaired.
One of the arguments Specter had long made—that his seniority enabled him to be a force on national issues and a benefactor for Pennsylvania—was undercut as well, and potential 2010 challengers started lining up to take him on.