Specter, the Senate's Man of the Hour From the Roberts Supreme Court nomination to the Patriot Act to stem-cell research, Sen. Arlen Specter is at the center of several high-profile issues in the Senate. In the latest Watching Washington, Ron Elving looks at why the Pennsylvania lawmaker has been such a driving force on Capitol Hill.
NPR logo Specter, the Senate's Man of the Hour

Specter, the Senate's Man of the Hour

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) attends a news conference on stem cell research legislation, July 13, 2005. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Corbis

If there were a "Player of the Month" award in the Senate, the winner for July would have to be Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the man who suddenly seems to be everywhere at once.

What is most remarkable about this five-term Republican is not that he goes on working while undergoing chemotherapy, remarkable as that is. What amazes most is the way he pops up at the epicenter of so many salient issues that he can scarcely accommodate all the TV talk show invitations.

Start with the headline of the month: President Bush's nomination of John Roberts to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter will orchestrate and conduct the all-important hearings on that nomination.

Even before he rose to the Judiciary chairmanship, Specter was a pivotal member of the panel when it came to Supreme Court fights. His questioning of Robert H. Bork in 1987 set the stage for Bork's defeat, just as his defense of Clarence Thomas in 1991 (achieved through the grilling of his antagonist, Anita Hill) sealed that nominee's success.

For the moment, Roberts does not appear nearly as controversial as either Bork or Thomas. But if there is to be a fight over his confirmation, it may well arise from Democratic efforts to obtain documents from the White House. These might include legal memoranda Roberts wrote as a lawyer in the Justice Department in the 1980s and early 1990s. If the fight comes down to document access, it is again likely that Specter's attitude will decide the committee's direction.

In fact, liberal activist Ralph Neas, president of the People for the American Way, says Specter's vote is "perhaps the most important vote in the United States Senate," and predicts it will "determine what happens in committee and what happens on the floor" with respect to any high court vacancy.

But the Roberts nomination is only the latest in Specter's big hits this summer. As Judiciary chair, he fashioned a far-sighted and bipartisan compromise version of the Patriot Act, the law passed immediately after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Since its passage, the Patriot Act has been assailed from both the left and the right as an affront to America's traditions of civil liberty and constrained government. Key provisions of the law were on the brink of elimination before the London bombings of July 7 wrenched the Capitol back to crisis mode. In that atmosphere, the House last week renewed the act virtually intact, even adding new powers of government surveillance.

Specter, in stark contrast, pursued an even-handed and bipartisan approach to renewing the law, moving it through his keenly contentious committee without a nay vote. He even brought aboard the one senator who stood against the original act in 1991, Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin.

Far from finished, Specter is now responsible for the bill on the Senate floor and for its fate in conference with the House later this year. And whatever the House-Senate negotiations produce, Specter will likely be tasked with persuading President Bush to sign it.

The Supreme Court fight and the Patriot Act might be enough to sate most committee chairmen. And having two big confrontations with the president would surely be enough for other Republicans. But Specter has several other major concerns that all seemed to demand his attention this month.

Specter has taken it upon himself to broker a deal on asbestos contamination and resulting health problems. One of the thorniest of all the environmental liability cases, asbestos has bedeviled legislators at all levels for decades. But Specter got a bill out of his committee in May that would create a $140 billion trust fund for victims. And this week he threatened to issue subpoenas to certain companies to determine their contributions to the fund. It's not even a law yet, and Specter is making waves with it.

The hyperactive chairman also held hearings last week on the rights of reporters to protect confidential sources of information. The issue arises from the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who resisted grand jury questioning in the White House's outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Other reporters accepted a release of obligation from their sources on the story, but Miller went to jail rather than back down. Some states have shield laws to spare reporters the dilemma that landed Miller in detention, and Specter called in witnesses to discuss having such protections at the federal level.

And to top it all, Specter is pushing federal funding for stem cell research — yet another issue that brings him into conflict with the White House and with the leadership of his party in Congress. Acting in his capacity as chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee, Specter has been the lead proponent of federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells.

There are more than 400,000 frozen embryos extant in the U.S. now, most of which will eventually be discarded as medical waste. They could be of use to researchers, but social conservatives believe that represents the ending of a potential human life.

The House has already approved some funding for such research, prompting a veto threat from President Bush. Specter has an identical bill ready for Senate passage, but he has found his way blocked by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The leader wants the Senate to consider several competing bills that would favor research on adult stem cells over embryos, an approach favored by the White House.

Here again, Specter has held his ground, insisting on the prior claim of the Judiciary bill. He knows the alternatives are designed to deprive his bill of swing votes it needs to pass, thus sparing the president the political pain of vetoing a bill that enjoys strong support in opinion polls. So in pressing ahead, he knows the odds against him.

But of all the issues occupying his time, this has to be the one Specter takes most personally. He has survived heart bypass surgery and a brain tumor (in 1996, the year he ran for president), but he reached his mid-70s with nearly all his hair. Then came the diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease and the chemotherapy. He still plays squash, and insists he has the fight to carry all the controversies he's shouldered. But he now stands at news conferences nearly bald, talking about how much the promise of stem-cell research means to him.

Arlen Specter has never been among the most popular members of the Senate. His career back in Pennsylvania was marked by years of defeat and frustration before he broke through to the Senate in 1980. Since then he has come close to losing his seat, even his party nomination. When he was re-elected last year, some conservatives inside and outside the Senate tried to prevent his elevation to Judiciary chairman.

But having gotten through all that, Specter seems to thrive on trial. And he has never faced more challenges at once than he faces now.