The longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history, Sen. Specter aged dramatically while in public office, suffering serious health problems over the years. He survived bouts with benign brain tumors in 1993 and 1996, and then cancer in the form of Hodgkin’s disease in 2005 and 2008. Despite his medical issues, he never missed a Senate session, and he co-wrote a book on the subject in 2008 called “Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate.”
Sen. Specter was one of Congress’s leading champions of medical research. Together with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), he helped double the National Institutes of Health budget from 1999 to 2004. He was a vocal supporter of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which is opposed by many conservatives because it uses excess human embryos from in-vitro fertilization. Sen. Specter also supported abortion rights and was a steady backer of Obama’s health-care overhaul agenda.
Although admired by colleagues for his policy knowledge and political conviction, Sen. Specter had a reputation for being arrogant, even irascible. He was famously short-tempered and sharp-tongued, earning the Capitol Hill sobriquet “Snarlin’ Arlen.”
‘A liberal Republican’
When Sen. Specter arrived in the Senate, he found a home among moderate Republicans, often voting with Democrats. He supported the death penalty and opposed most gun-control measures, but he favored affirmative action and voted against some tax cuts for wealthier Americans. He also was a leader in strengthening civil rights laws.
“He was a Rockefeller Republican, a liberal Republican, and was willing to take on Presidents Reagan and Bush, and became a true leader in the bipartisan efforts that strengthened all the civil rights laws and defeated Bork,” said Ralph G. Neas, a longtime civil rights and health-care advocate.
“Then you had a line of demarcation,” Neas said, beginning with Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination and continuing with the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate after the 1994 midterm elections. “Arlen Specter became an especially cautious politician,” Neas said.
When the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1995 with a new cast of conservatives, Sen. Specter was a leader of the moderate wing. He sought the party’s 1996 presidential nomination to challenge President Bill Clinton, arguing that the nation could not afford “a Republican candidate so captive to the demands of the intolerant right that we end up reelecting a president of the incompetent left.”
But he could not woo enough Republicans, and he suspended his campaign just before the primaries began, endorsing Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.).