Sen. Specter: Political courage lacking among colleagues on Capitol Hill

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat from Pennsylvania who will not be returning to the Senate after a 30-year career there, says that many of his colleagues lack the political courage to take tough votes.

The senior lawmaker from Pennsylvania reflected on his five terms in the Senate during a wide-ranging interview in his hideaway office tucked behind the Senate dining room.

ADVERTISEMENT
Specter said lawmakers have become fearful after seeing the political price colleagues have paid for various votes in the recent midterm elections. He noted Sen. Bob Bennett's loss in the Utah Republican primary after voting for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout package, and Sen. Lisa Murksowki’s loss in Alaska’s Republican primary. Murkowski later won a hard-fought bid for her reelection as a write-in candidate.

“Senators today are shying away from casting controversial votes on the proposition of any single vote can lead to their defeat,” he said.

He pointed to the Democrats’ failure to find a single Republican to vote for legislation that would have required shadowy third-party groups that poured millions of dollars in the 2010 election to disclose their donors, even though several Republicans had previously supported campaign finance transparency.

Specter’s willingness to take controversial stands over the years has made him a target of scorn for both liberals and conservatives, and may have contributed to his midterm defeat for reelection. But he’s leaving the Senate with only one regret.

It wasn't his vote for the $787 billion economic stimulus package in 2009, which he says cost him his Senate seat.

It wasn't his harsh cross-examination of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which drew condemnation from liberal groups and almost cost him his seat in 1992. Or his vote against Robert Bork’s nomination to the high court, which earned him the hatred of conservatives.

It wasn't his much-ridiculed finding of “not proven” in the Senate’s impeachment trial of former President Clinton.

Nor was it his decision to switch to the Democratic Party in April of last year, a gambit that failed when he lost a primary match-up against Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

Specter said the biggest mistake of his 30-year Senate career was his vote to authorize the war in Iraq in October of 2002.

“The vote in favor of the Iraq war was a mistake by hindsight, attributable to faulty intelligence,” Specter said.

Specter raised questions during the floor debate over whether former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein really possessed weapons of mass destruction and about the American post-war plan for the country.

“I and many others relied on the assurances of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who appeared in the United Nations, represented he had access to all of the materials and that Saddam did in fact have weapons of mass destruction,” Specter recalled. “In retrospect that was a mistake.”

He prefers to talk about his legacy, believing his biggest impact after three decades in the Senate are the millions in funding he directed to the National Institutes of Health and his role in shaping the judiciary.

He noted that he was involved in 14 Supreme Court confirmation hearings and that he worked on the confirmation of more than 90 judges over the years to the federal district courts in Pennsylvania.

Specter plans to withhold judgment on Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, whom he helped to shepherd through the Senate confirmation process as former Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, because they are in the early years of their tenures.

Specter has long been accused by conservative Republicans of basing his votes on political calculation instead of policy conviction.

He developed a reputation as a survivor — and not just for his ability to navigate the tricky politics of Pennsylvania, the nation’s second-largest swing state. He has undergone a heart bypass, surgery for a brain tumor and chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease twice.

He has also survived close calls on the campaign trail. In 1992, he won reelection 49 percent to 46 percent, after women’s groups made him a target because of his tough questioning of Hill. In 2004, he edged former Rep. Pat Toomey (Pa.) by just 17,000 votes in the Republican primary.

His streak of political victories came to an end, however, on May 18, when he lost to Sestak.

Specter says his vote for the stimulus ended his career. At the time, Toomey had declared his intention to run for governor, and Specter said he had “clear sailing for reelection.”

The vote for the stimulus sparked a backlash among conservatives who would later bring the Tea Party to national prominence, and Toomey decided to run for Senate. Specter switched parties soon after, realizing that he could not win a primary after 150,000 to 200,000 centrist Republicans changed their registrations to Democratic in the 2008 election cycle.

Specter said Vice President Joe Biden and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) “had been after me for a long time” to switch parties.

“The dominant thought was that the stimulus vote had cost me my seat,” Specter said, recalling his thoughts on primary night after learning he had lost to Sestak. “Of the 10,000 votes that I’ve cast in the United States Senate, the most important vote I cast was for the stimulus and I cast that vote knowing the political perils,” Specter said.

Specter decided to vote for the politically controversial package because he remembered his experience as a child during the Great Depression and wanted to spare the nation from another economic calamity.

Specter was one of three Republicans, along with Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, to support the stimulus.

“I have always agreed with Kennedy that sometimes party asks too much,” he said of pressure from Republican leaders to hold ranks against the bill.

Specter said his vote for the economic stimulus was one of several pivotal votes he cast to advance President Obama’s agenda. He said his decision to join the Democratic Party gave Obama the 60th Senate vote to pass both healthcare reform and Wall Street reform, two of his biggest legislative initiatives.

Specter says he has a “very good relationship” with Obama, even though the president decided not to campaign for him on the ground in the final days leading up to the Pennsylvania primary.

Specter declined to reveal his thoughts in reaction to the snub, adding that he needs to save some material for a book he plans to publish.

Specter also withheld making a public comment on the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), again citing his publishing ambitions.

In his final floor speech, Specter criticized Reid and other recent majority leaders for the “tyrannical” practice of routinely refusing to let senators offer amendments on the legislation.

Specter said Obama has invited him to the White House since the election to discuss the lawmaker’s future interests. He said he is not interested in serving in a Cabinet post, but added that “if something should arise where he wanted me to serve and [it was] something I thought I could make a contribution on, it would be a possibility, but nothing’s in the offing.”

Specter predicts Obama will have a difficult time working with Republicans in the 112th Congress.

“I think it’s going to be very tough; when you have the Senate Republican leader saying the No. 1 objective of the Republican caucus is to defeat the president in 2012, that’s not a shot across the bow, that’s a shot at the control room.”

Specter plans to teach a class on Supreme Court confirmation hearings at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in next year’s fall term. He is also exploring possibilities as a television or radio commentator and has had a “number of discussions” with law firms, hoping to work on Justice Department regulations and Medicare.

Specter said he would have liked to stay in Congress to continue working on NIH funding and embryonic stem cell research, but has come to accept that it's time to “move on.”

More in Senate races

Koch group ties La. Sen. Landrieu to Gruber

Read more »