Former longtime Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who as a Republican pushed two conservative justices onto the Supreme Court and then later switched to the Democratic Party and became a deciding vote for the health care law, died Sunday.
His son told The Associated Press the senator died at his home in Philadelphia from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was 82.
“Arlen Specter was always a fighter,” President Obama said in a statement Sunday afternoon. “From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent — never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve.”
Mr. Specter’s independence, though, also made him a tool for, and a target of, both parties, and it ultimately left him what he called a man “without a party.” He fled the GOP in 2009 to become a Democrat, only to lose that party’s primary a year later and go into forced retirement.
He had some legislative successes in Congress, but made his biggest mark in the SenateJudiciary Committee, where he vetted the country’s Supreme Court justices — and where his stance straddling the political middle made him a useful foil for both parties.
In the 1980s, he helped block Judge Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, drawing ire from conservatives. But several years later he sided against Anita Hill, who accused soon-to-be-Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Mr. Specter said at the time her allegations seemed like perjury.
Then under President George W. Bush's administration, Mr. Specter oversaw the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. — though in his final Senate speech he seemed to take a parting shot at both of them for approving a decision that overturned some campaign finance rules.
He also released a memoir of his time on Capitol Hill earlier this year in which he criticized the direction of politics on Capitol Hill, settled some scores with those who he believed had shown disrespect at times — including President Obama — and told colorful tales of running into other senators naked in the gym reserved for members only.
Mr. Specter’s party switch came just months after he and two other Republican senators voted for Mr. Obama’s economic stimulus package — the only three Republicans in the entire Congress to back Mr. Obama on the measure.
Realizing he would not be able to win a primary against Patrick J. Toomey, whom he’d narrowly topped in a 2004 primary and only with the backing of then-Sen. Rick Santorum, Mr. Specter left the GOP and announced he was a Democrat instead.
“I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” Mr. Specter said at the time. “I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.”
He thought he had struck a deal to retain his seniority and committee positions among Democrats, but said in his memoir that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid broke that commitment.
After that, Mr. Specter said he decided to serve out his term and retire, but his wife, Joan, pushed him to run again.
But the Pennsylvania Democratic electorate was no more accepting than the GOP, and he lost to then-Rep. Joe Sestak in his new party’s primary.
“Arlen was a statesman and a problem solver who was able to work with Democrats and Republicans in the best interest of our commonwealth and our country,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, said Sunday.
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