Arlen Specter Dies at 82

President Barack Obama (L) greets Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) (2nd-L) during a reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month May 27, 2010 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. The reception was to celebrate Jewish American heritage and its contributions to American culture.
President Obama with Arlen Specter in May 2010. (Alex Wong/Getty Images) Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Arlen Specter, the party-switching former Pennsylvania senator who made what many consider to be the deciding vote on Obamacare, died today at his Philadelphia home after a months-long battle with cancer, reports the Associated Press. While Specter was Republican for most of his 30-year career, he caused a right wing uproar when he voted for President Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 — one of only three GOP Senators to do so — and two months later switched to the Democratic Party after finding himself “increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy.” At 7:05 on the morning of December 24, 2009, Specter voted with the rest of his newfound party to break a Republican filibuster and pass President Obama’s healthcare law. Mitt Romney and the conservative Club for Growth later called him the “crucial 60th vote.”

As it happens, Arlen Specter finished his political career in January 2011 — he lost a primary bid for his own seat in 2010 — back in the same party where he began in the sixties, as a Democratic assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. But his membership was brief. After making a name for himself locking up corrupt Teamsters bosses and working on the Warren Commission (investigating President John F. Kennedy’s assassination), Specter won the election for Philadelphia district attorney and soon after switched to the Republican Party.

Specter ultimately made it into the U.S. Senate as part of the Reagan wave of 1980. (He’d already tried once, unsuccessfully, before making a failed bid for governor.) Seven years later, he proved his centrist roots by blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Yale Law School professor and avowed originalist Robert H. Bork, earning himself plenty of enemies on the right. Four years later, he grilled Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, accusing her of “flat-out perjury,” earning himself plenty of enemies in the women’s movement. In late 2004, he was named chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Specter was, it seemed to many, an equal-opportunity adversary and advocate: As a member of the appropriations committee, he funneled federal dollars to stem cell research, not exactly a cause close to the GOP’s pro-life heart. Looking back, he may not have been loved by many in his party, or even been trusted by Democrats after his 2009 conversion, but he was one of the few centrists left in an increasingly polarized and partisan Congress.