Outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., in what was likely one of his last lengthy floor speeches, on Tuesday decried the exodus of moderates from the Senate and urged mainstream voters to reject extremism, the tea party and the ideological purity tests of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
"The partisanship has reached such a high level and comity such a low level, that there is not even the pretense of negotiation or compromise in almost all situations," Specter said.
Specter's take on Senate polarization tracks with statements by other outgoing senators, including Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio.
Specter, who while a Republican was a top target of conservative purists such as the Club for Growth and made his reciprocal enmity clear, has previously faulted ideologues for the decline of Senate bipartisanship.
But the remarks were Specter's most extensive on electoral politics and what he said is the pernicious effect of extreme partisanship on the Senate since his loss this year in a Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak, a defeat that followed Specter's decision to switch parties last year after concluding he could not survive a GOP primary challenge by former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
Though he has been a reliable Democratic vote since switching parties, Specter seemed to speak Tuesday from the perspective of a moderate Republican.
He noted that the GOP moderate luncheon club he joined in 1980 had 18 members but by 2009 was down to himself and Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
Without mentioning DeMint by name, Specter faulted the South Carolinian's statement that he would prefer "30 Marco Rubios" -- a conservative seeking the seat held by Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla. -- "than 50 Arlen Specters."
Though DeMint has often irked GOP colleagues and is not close to Republican leaders, Specter called such views "the prevailing Republican motto."
Specter cited the 2006 primary loss of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., as example of ideological purging on the left but otherwise focused on the conservative dogmatism he blamed for losses by Sens. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., in recent GOP senatorial primaries.
He said tea party activists do not represent all of America or even a majority of Republicans.
"Moderates and some conservatives have fallen like flies at the hands of the extremists in both parties," said Specter.
He did not offer an explanation for the trend. But he argued Bennett had been unfairly ousted by Utah Republicans largely over his backing for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Pointing to the $800 billion stimulus bill passed last year, Specter, who while still a Republican, joined with Snowe and Collins backing the final version of the bill, said "pressure to toe the party line was tremendous -- the strongest I've seen in my 29-year tenure. The risk of retribution was enormous."
Asked about pressure from GOP leadership to oppose the bill, Collins said it was substantial but that they did not threaten retribution.
Voinovich, who participated in talks over the bill before dropping out, said it is "not true at all," that Republicans faced unusual pressure to vote with leadership. Still, Voinovich has also made clear his disdain for the large amount of partisan politics in the everyday work of the Senate.
Bennett, while distancing himself from Specter's criticism of other Republicans, said he generally agreed on the danger purity tests pose for legislation.
Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a conservative Democrat, who himself has appeared to hew right this year amid home-state attacks on his support for the healthcare overhaul bill, said he expected that Republicans concerned about primary challenges in 2012 would make legislating hard next year regardless of the Senate breakdown.
"I'm not sure what can get done if it's 52-48, or 56-44, because of the polarization," Nelson said.
This article appears in the October 2, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.