Former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, whose long career in public service ranged from probing President Kennedy’s assassination to a major role in Supreme Court nomination battles, died Sunday morning at age 82.
Specter, Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator whose 30 years on Capitol Hill included a late-career switch to the Democratic party, died from complications related to non-Hodgkin lymphoma at his home in Philadelphia, according to his son Shanin Specter.
Earlier this year, Specter was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania hospital to resume treatments for cancer, saying in a statement that his latest bout with illness was “another battle I intend to win.”
Specter was first elected to Congress in 1980. He was a centrist Republican for 29 years, but he switched to the Democratic Party in 2009 after conservatives were riled by his vote for President Obama’s $860 billion economic stimulus package.
The switch enabled Specter to later become one of the last of the 60 votes Obama needed to pass his controversial healthcare reform law.
The longtime senator was defeated, however, in a Democratic primary in 2010 by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who went on to lose to now-Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who had first challenged Specter in a primary bid in 2004.
President Obama praised Specter on Sunday in a statement, calling the departed senator a "fighter."
"From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent – never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve," said Obama. "He brought that same toughness and determination to his personal struggles, using his own story to inspire others."
The president said that when Specter's cancer returned in 2005, he fought "that battle for seven more years with the same resolve he used to fight for stem-cell research funding, veterans health, and countless other issues that will continue to change lives for years to come."
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in a statement, praised Specter as a “longtime public servant who participated in some of the most consequential and historic debates of our time.”
“His fight against cancer served as an inspiration to others battling this deadly disease. Ann and I hold his family in our thoughts and prayers today,” he added.
Specter’s former colleagues also honored him with statements on Sunday.
Vice President Biden who served with Specter for many years in the Senate said the former lawmaker was “my friend and I admired him a great deal.”
“For over three decades, I watched his political courage accomplish great feats and was awed by his physical courage to never give up,” said Biden in a statement. “Arlen never walked away from his principles and was at his best when they were challenged.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Specter as a "legendary figure" who "brought his fierce intellect and a prosecutor's drive to countless battles in the Senate.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who now holds Specter's one-time seat, called him "a man of sharp intelligence and dogged determination."
"Sen. Specter dedicated his life to public service and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His impact on our state and public policy will not be forgotten," he added.
The remembrances of his passing were bipartisan.
“It was a privilege to serve with former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and to know him as a friend and as a neighbor. We miss him,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) on Twitter.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) tweeted that his thoughts and prayers are with the late senator’s family and friends. “He was a moderate voice in the Senate & dedicated much of life to public service. He will be missed,” Rockefeller said.
During his tenure in the Senate, Specter played high profile roles in two major battles over Supreme Court nominations, opposing President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork and drawing the wrath of conservatives in the process for his role in blocking the controversial nominee.
Specter was at the center of another high-profile Supreme Court battle when, during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in 1991, he aggressively questioned Anita Hill, who had alleged that high court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.
Thomas was confirmed by the Senate in a narrow 52-48 vote, with Specter voting in his favor.
A number of the centrist Specter's positions drew anger from the right and the left. Social conservatives criticized his support for abortion rights, while his backing for the death penalty and calls for tough sentencing on criminals found opposition on the left.
In 2010 Specter was among the 65 senators who voted to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell," policy, helping to provide a major victory for gay rights advocates.
In a memoir published earlier this year, also Specter expressed unhappiness with his treatment by Democrats after his party switch.
Specter wrote that Obama failed to help him in his reelection bid, despite his aid in helping the president pass healthcare reform. He also accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of failing to honor a promise to acknowledge the seniority he accrued after 28 years as a GOP senator.
Specter’s career included work as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission that probed President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, and reached the controversial conclusion that it resulted from a single bullet from the rifle of lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald.
He later served as district attorney of Philadelphia from 1966-1974.
The Kansas native graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and Yale University Law School in 1956, and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951-53, according to his biography on the U.S. Congress website.
Specter ran briefly for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. He withdrew from the race, however, in 1995 before any primaries or caucuses were held, later supporting the eventual GOP nominee that year, former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
This story was first posted at 1:20 p.m. and was last updated at 7:41 p.m.