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Specter, Fighting Cancer, Thrives on Chance to Lead Roberts Hearings

August 29, 2005
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Soon after the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), himself fighting Hodgkin’s disease, wrote to the journalist. Work is the best antidote for cancer, Specter told him.

Specter may be trying to prove the point this summer: At a time when many cancer sufferers concentrate solely on fighting their illness, Specter, 75, has become a more frequent guest on Sunday morning talk shows and is at the center of some of the most controversial issues of the day. Next month he’ll be in the spotlight as he chairs Judge John Roberts’ confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court.

At times Specter represents his party’s faithful; on other issues he bucks the leadership. Friends and colleagues say taking on big fights is trademark Arlen Specter.

“I think his job has been a substantial factor in saving his life,” his son, Shanin, a prominent Philadelphia trial attorney, told JTA. “He said there were a lot of days he didn’t feel like getting up. But he got up every day because he had work to do he felt was very important.”

Since arriving in the Senate in 1981, Specter has made a name for himself by taking positions that at times angered the Republican Party leadership and at times miffed his moderate Pennsylvania constituency.

He gained national attention as one of the few GOP opponents to the Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. But it was his tough questioning of Anita Hill, the lawyer who accused the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, that shaped Specter’s early reputation.

The questioning did not sit well with female voters in Pennsylvania, and Specter fought a difficult re-election battle a year later against Lynn Yeakel.

Judy Palkovitz, a volunteer from Pittsburgh, was recruited to speak to women who weren’t planning to support Specter’s 1992 re-election bid.

“There were a lot of people who felt he went overboard with Anita Hill,” said Palkovitz, 63. “I have friends throughout the country who will never forgive him for what he did to her, and that is baggage he has to carry.”

Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America and a friend of Specter’s, said the lawmaker went around the state explaining his record and barely won re-election.

“He was very contrite about maybe not handling that issue in the most sensitive matter that he should have,” Klein said.

Specter — who became the first Jew to run for the Republican nomination for president in 1996, but withdrew before the first primary — now is in a “perfect position to get a second crack at history,” Palkovitz said.

By all accounts, Specter is relishing the opportunity to spearhead Roberts’ confirmation hearings as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“This is the culmination of his career,” said Terry Madonna, the director of Franklin and Marshall College’s Keystone Poll. “He has been waiting his entire senatorial career for this moment.”

To win the chairmanship, earlier this year Specter had to fend off conservative Republican critics who feared he wouldn’t reflect their views on abortion and other hot-button issues. While Roberts is considered very likely to be confirmed, Specter has made it clear that the nominee won’t get a free pass.

Specter has already signaled to Roberts that he will question him about “judicial activism” and the court’s tactic of denigrating congressional measures it overturns, statements that have won praise from Democrats.

His questioning of Roberts could further rankle the GOP leadership — but they may be getting used to Specter bucking party discipline by now.

“This is not a doctrinarian party,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Specter has always been willing to speak his mind no matter where the party is, Brooks said, comparing him to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who feel comfortable articulating positions that buck the party line.

“He’s always known that he represents a point of view that, while it has become a minority view within his own party, is a majority point of view within the country,” Shanin Specter said. “He feels very comfortable articulating those views.”

Often described as indefatigable, some observers say cancer hasn’t slowed Specter. He didn’t miss a day of work during his illness, even continuing to attend his morning squash games.

This summer he has been leading the fight to lift the ban on embryonic stem-cell research, a position supported by much of the American Jewish community.

Specter fought the White House for a vote on the measure this fall, threatening to include it in a health and human services spending bill he controls as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services.

Many believe Specter’s efforts forced Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader and a heart surgeon, not only to schedule a vote on the measure but also to change his position and support stem-cell research himself.

Specter made headlines in May when Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a key opponent of embryonic stem-cell research, asked him when his life began on the ABC News program “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“Well, Sam, I’m a lot more concerned at this point about when my life is going to end,” Specter said.

Associates say it’s not surprising that Specter has used his illness as a platform and that he chose not to wear a wig after his cancer treatments caused hair loss.

“There’s something about him that says, ‘This is who I am and this is just the way it is,’ ” said Joseph Smukler, a past chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “He’s a very forceful guy.”

Middle-ground positions have helped Specter consistently win majorities in Pennsylvania, a state that voted last year for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for president but which is also home to one of Congress’ staunchest conservatives, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

When you so often stake out middle positions, there’s a good chance you’ll anger both liberal or conservative voters at one time or another. Palkovitz, a leading donor to Specter over the past two decades, recently parted company with him, upset that the pro-choice lawmaker backed a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions in 2003.

“I thought he was being used by the people who were against abortion, who didn’t really give a fig about him,” she said. “I told him people like me will remember.”

Other people in the Jewish community remember Specter’s strong support for Israel and his leadership in the fight for Soviet Jews in the 1980s.

“He’s known as the best supporter of Israel among all the Jews in the Senate,” Klein said. “He’s at the forefront: He stands up, he lobbies and he makes phone calls.”

Specter is considered part of a dying breed of moderate northeastern Republicans, often compared to former Sen. Jacob Javits of New York and former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who went on to become a U.S. vice president.

He goes full throttle on every issue he takes on, from challenging Anita Hill to challenging his own party leaders. Supporters and critics alike say Specter has a strong political sensibility, which allows him to walk very close to the edge while rarely crossing over.

After all, said Madonna, the Keystone Poll director, this was the man who advocated the “single-bullet theory” in 1964 as an investigator into the assassination of President Kennedy on the Warren Commission.

“He thrives on these contentious moments,” Madonna said. “His entire career he’s been at the center of a lot of controversial issues, and I don’t think he has sleepless nights because of them.”

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