Arlen Specter’s seven-year battle with cancer lent a personal edge to his support for embryonic stem-cell research, an issue which frequently led the longtime Pennsylvania senator to buck the GOP.
Specter, whose long political career traced the decline of the northeastern Republican moderate, died Sunday of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer—his third bout with the disease. He was 82.
“For over three decades, I watched his political courage accomplish great feats and was awed by his physical courage to never give up,” said Vice President Joe Biden in a statement. “Arlen never walked away from his principles and was at his best when they were challenged.” The two men, longtime Senate colleagues, often rode the train home together from Washington D.C.
Specter was an early and staunch advocate of human embryonic stem-cell research. In 2005, not long after announcing he was suffering from cancer, he introduced a bill to lift President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of such research, and held hearings on the issue with scientists who explained the far-reaching potential medical benefits.
“I think it’s time that a little hell was raised about this subject,” Specter told a reporter at the time. When the reporter observed that he seemed angry, Specter replied: “Yeah, well, I am, as a matter of fact. Try a few chemotherapy treatments and see how you feel.”
In 2008, Specter wrote a book about his fight with cancer, Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate.
Elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1980, Specter, a lawyer, played a key role in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, frequently refusing to toe the party line. In 1987, he used his perch on the Judiciary Committee to help block confirmation of Robert Bork, an arch-conservative legal theorist nominated by President Reagan, to the Supreme Court. But four years later, he enraged liberals with his tough questioning of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, accusing Hill of “flat-out perjury.”
After the 2004 election, Specter was in line to be chair of the Judiciary committee, but he alarmed religious conservatives by suggesting that anti-abortion judicial nominees were unlikely to be confirmed. After publicly pledging not to hinder President Bush’s agenda, Specter was allowed to assume the chairmanship.
Still, Specter’s support for abortion rights and other liberal positions on social issues made him increasingly an outlier in his party. In April 2009, facing a tough re-election fight the following year, he shocked political observers by switching to the Democrats, briefly helping to give them a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. His defection left just two northeastern Republican moderates—once a common breed—in the Senate: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine. Snowe is retiring this year.
Specter was unusually candid about one of the reasons for his party switch, telling supporters: “My change in party will allow me to be re-elected.” Those words came back to haunt him the following year, when Rep. Joe Sestak defeated him for the Democratic nomination, using the quote in an attack ad. Sestak lost the general election to Republican Pat Toomey.
Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1930, Specter came east to attend the University of Pennsylvania, then Yale Law School. He first came to prominence as a hard-nosed Philadelphia district attorney prosecuting the Teamsters, then as a member of the Warren Commission who developed the “single bullet” theory of the JFK assassination, arguing that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
Specter is survived by his wife Joan, two sons, and four grand-daughters.