Arlen Specter died this week at age 82. The cause was cancer. But it wasn’t a one-sided fight. Before he died, Specter launched a spectacular and shockingly successful legislative assault on the disease.
These days, legislators tend to vote with their parties. But it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that you could win a legislator’s vote by funding something they cared about. And in 2009, with President Obama’s stimulus hanging in the balance, Specter decided to play it old school.
Specter was already facing a sure primary challenge in 2010, so the safe move would’ve been for him to join his party and try and kill the stimulus. But there was a lot of money in the stimulus. And Specter, who’d beaten back cancer twice before, had something he wanted to fund in a big way: cancer research.
Rather than vote with his party, Specter decided to vote against his disease. He cut a deal with the Democrats: He’d support the stimulus in return for $10 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health — a 34 percent increase in the agency’s budget, and one of the largest single streams of funding in the law. ”Even lobbyists are stunned by the coup Mr. Specter pulled off this week,” reported the New York Times after Specter saw his amendment adopted.
What happened next would also be crucial for Americans with cancer. Republicans were furious with Specter. The primary challenge against him looked sure to succeed. And so, in 2009, he switched parties, becoming a Democrat. His defection gave Democrats the 60 votes they needed to pass the Affordable Care Act in the Senate, meaning that tens of millions of Americans will get health insurance — and one thing we know is that the uninsured have much lower survival rates from cancer than the insured.
So Specter managed, in the space of two years, to launch a massive medical assault on cancer and to hugely fortify our defenses against it. The cancer ultimately claimed his life, but not before he’d stopped it from claiming the lives of many, many others.