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.
Juliana Gruenwald, Elahe Izadi and Chuck McCutcheon contributed.