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Specter assails ideological 'cannibalism' in Senate in farewell speech

The 2010 midterm elections replaced a number of high-profile and influential lawmakers.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:50 PM

Sen. Arlen Specter began his goodbye speech after 30 years in office Tuesday morning by declaring "this is not a farewell address but rather a closing argument."

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And argumentative he was. The Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat berated his colleagues for stripping the "world's greatest deliberative body" of its collegiality. In a bitter, at times angry, speech, Specter accused leaders of both parties of abusing the Senate's "cerebral procedures" in the service of partisan rancor and gridlock.

Referring to the 2010 election cycle in which he and more than a half-dozen colleagues were defeated in party primaries, Specter condemned senators for campaigning against one another.

"Collegiality can obviously not be maintained when negotiating with someone simultaneously out to defeat you - especially within your own party," Specter said. "In some quarters, 'compromising' has become a dirty word. Some senators insist on ideological purity as a precondition."

Specter, 80, surveyed the wreckage of Republicans defeated by tea party insurgents in primaries this year. He said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) was rejected in a Senate primary in favor of "a candidate who thought it necessary to defend herself as not being a witch" - a reference from the Senate floor to defeated Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell that caused a few colleagues to smile and hold back laughter.

"Eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism," Specter added.

Specter's speech stood in stark contrast to the soaring, valedictory odes to the Senate that Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and other veteran legislators have delivered in recent weeks. And it was not lost on anyone that, unlike Dodd and Gregg, Specter - who earned the nickname "Snarlin' Arlen" - is not exiting on his own terms.

A moderate Republican since his first election to the Senate in 1980, Specter switched parties in spring 2009 when it became clear to him that he would lose reelection in a GOP primary. But as a Democrat, he faced a surprisingly strong primary challenge from insurgent Rep. Joe Sestak, who beat Specter to the nomination but lost in the general election to Sen.-elect Pat Toomey (R).

"Civility is a state of mind," Specter said. "It reflects respect for your opponents and for the institutions you serve together. . . . This polarization will make civility in the next Congress more difficult - and more necessary - than ever."

Specter cited the unlikely write-in victory by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as evidence that America still wants to be governed by the center. Specter has seen his coalition of moderate senators shrink drastically. In his speech, he rattled off a roll call of moderate Republicans who ate lunch together - "a glorious tradition," he said. Almost all those colleagues are gone from the Senate.

"That's a far cry from later years, when moderates could fit in a telephone booth," he added.

Specter told senators he was not retiring. "I do not say farewell to my continuing involvement in public policy, which I will pursue in a different venue," he said.

And indeed, Specter retook the floor shortly after giving his farewell to offer his thoughts on the nuclear arms treaty.


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