Former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a quick-witted but cantankerous presence on Capitol Hill for 30 years, died this morning at age 82 at his home in Philadelphia after losing his fourth battle with cancer, his family confirmed to the Associated Press.
From originating the controversial “single bullet theory” about President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to accusing Anita Hill of “flat-out perjury” during the 1991 hearings on then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Specter’s storied career as both a lawyer and a politician landed him in the middle of some of the most memorable moments in U.S history.
But he will also be remembered for switching parties in the twilight of his Senate career in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to secure a sixth term.
Specter’s 30-year tenure in the Senate was spent mainly as a Republican. But he switched to the Democratic Party in April 2009, after it was clear he would likely lose a GOP primary to now-Sen. Pat Toomey. Though Specter often drew tough opponents in both general and primary elections over the course of his career, it was his vote for President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus measure that added fuel to the long-simmering resentment of his moderate voting record among Pennsylvania Republicans.
Democrats, including Vice President Joseph Biden and Senate colleagues, also lobbied Specter to make the switch, promising to back him in any Democratic primary fight.
Since his first election to the Senate in 1980, “the Republican Party has moved far to the right,” he said at the time. “Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.”
Once a court battle ended over a Minnesota Senate seat, Specter’s move meant that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) gave the Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority for advancing President Barack Obama’s legislative priorities, including his health care law.
Initially, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Specter’s seniority would be preserved when he made the switch, but that position drew the ire of fellow Democrats. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) turned over the reins of a key Judiciary subcommittee to Specter, but the question of his long term seniority in the Democratic Caucus was scheduled to be reviewed at the start of the 112th Congress.
Specter, however, did not make it that far. In an ironic twist, he failed to secure the Democratic nomination, losing the primary to then-Rep. Joe Sestak, who ignored Democratic leaders and refused to clear the field for Specter.
Whether as a Republican or Democrat, “Snarlin’ Arlen” was considered one of the more difficult Senators to work for, with requirements that veered into the obsessive. And he often received questions from the press with the skepticism of a lawyer — parsing journalists’ phrasing to evade or skewer their line of questioning.