Specter scolds Senate in farewell
WASHINGTON -- Leaving the Senate with a condemnation of its politics and practices tempered with hope for the body's future, Arlen Specter delivered his farewell speech Tuesday.
Mr. Specter, the former district attorney of Philadelphia who became Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator, termed the speech his "closing argument" -- and it was a typically dense 2,600-word indictment of the polarized, gridlocked upper chamber.
Mr. Specter, 80, arrived in Washington in 1981 as one of more than a dozen moderate Republicans, "a far cry from later years when the moderates could fit into a telephone booth," he said. Mr. Specter left the GOP in 2009 after becoming one of just three GOP senators to vote for President Barack Obama's stimulus package.
Mr. Specter spoke of colleagues when he said that "a single vote out of thousands cast by an incumbent can cost his seat," but he could just as easily have been talking about his own electoral fate.
Fearing a sure Republican primary loss to Pat Toomey -- who takes over the seat next month -- Mr. Specter became a Democrat but couldn't fend off a primary challenge from the left by U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
Although he didn't spare Democrats, Mr. Specter's words cut most deeply at the right wing of the Republican Party. Asked by The Washington Post to pick "Washington's person of the year" last week, Mr. Specter chose Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. -- an honor not intended to flatter -- for his influence in pushing Republicans rightward by backing or threatening to back GOP primary challengers.
Mr. DeMint did not appear by name in Mr. Specter's speech, but it was no secret whom the Pennsylvanian meant when he said, "Eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism."
In an interview after the speech, Mr. Specter noted that both Sens. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and John McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, complained to him of being targeted by the Club for Growth -- the deep-pocketed conservative group that led the charge against Mr. Specter and that Mr. Toomey once ran.
"If you take a look at their voting records and what they're doing, there's deep worry, deep worry everywhere," Mr. Specter said of Senate Republicans.
Several Republicans attended his speech, a gesture Mr. Specter found "very gratifying." More than one-third of the Senate listened in -- a rarity, even for farewell speeches -- with most of them in rapt attention.
Delegation-mate Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., followed with a tribute to Mr. Specter, calling him one of the most significant Pennsylvanians in history and a big influence on the Senate.
"He's shown younger senators the way to work together in the interest of our state and our country, that bipartisanship wasn't just a sentiment. It was bipartisanship that led to results," Mr. Casey said.
Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., were among the bipartisan gang to sing Mr. Specter's praises, leading Mr. Specter to reminisce about cross-aisle friendships even in the hyper-partisan environment.
Mr. Specter's speech wasn't particularly self-reflective, but it did reference some personal career highlights -- including the cancer survivor's funding fights for the National Institutes of Health and peace-brokering trips to Syria.
Continuing themes he has stressed repeatedly in recent months, Mr. Specter attacked the Supreme Court for its controversial decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opening the door to more outside money in campaigns and other precedent-reversing shifts.
Chief Justice John Roberts "promised to just call balls and strikes and then moved the bases," said Mr. Specter, who took part in 14 Supreme Court nomination processes that provided some of his career's most memorable moments.
But most of all, he wanted to communicate to his colleagues the shortcomings of the Senate and his prescriptions for improvement.
Both parties, he said, have abused the power of the filibuster to grind the legislative process to a halt, and unfairly blocked amendments to bills in order to silence the minority and protect senators from tough votes.
"Never mind that we were sent here and paid to make tough votes," he said, as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- the current architect of amendment blocking -- sat cross-legged, 3 feet to Mr. Specter's left.
Mr. Specter argued for overhauling Senate procedures, forcing senators to actually speak when they filibuster -- rather than merely threaten it to stop a bill in its tracks until it can cross the 60-vote threshold. All other Senate business would be blocked while a filibuster is going on, putting the spotlight on the filibusterers, which would reduce their frequency, Mr. Specter argued.
Mr. Specter also reprised an idea he pitched in previous years to remove the 60-vote barrier for executive or judicial nominations.
Despite all the Senate's shortcomings, Mr. Specter said he is still optimistic about its future. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, gave him hope after she was defeated by a tea party-backed candidate in the Republican primary but -- despite the best efforts of the GOP -- won a write-in bid for re-election.
"By bouncing back and winning, Senator Murkowski demonstrated that a moderate-centrist can win by informing and arousing the general electorate," Mr. Specter said. "Her victory proves that America still wants to be and can be governed by the center."
Ms. Murkowski's race will be included in Mr. Specter's next book, which he said is targeted for a March release date. By then, Mr. Specter will no longer be a U.S. senator, but he said an institution that survived a near-deadly caning of a senator on the floor during the Civil War era will be fine without him.
"The Senate's a lot smarter than I am," he said in the interview. "It has served the country well, and we have to be careful about how we change it."
First Published December 22, 2010 12:00 am