From Specter, a blunt goodbye to the Senate
WASHINGTON, Dec 22, 2010 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) called his final floor speech Tuesday a "closing argument" rather than a farewell, and it sounded as if it might have been one of the stinging summations he delivered years ago as a Philadelphia prosecutor.
Partisanship, a quest for ideological purity, and the "abuse" of procedural rules have bled collegiality from the U.S. Senate and mired "the world's greatest deliberative body" in gridlock, Specter said.
This was not the usual flowery goodbye and trip down memory lane.
After 30 years, the longest tenure for a U.S. senator in state history, Specter is moving on, defeated in his bid for a sixth term after switching from the Republicans to the Democrats in an effort to survive one more time.
Turning to the 2010 elections in which he and several colleagues were mowed down in party primaries, he slammed senators for campaigning against one another -- something that he said was taboo when he first joined the Senate.
"In some quarters, compromising has become a dirty word," he said. "Some senators insist on ideological purity as a precondition."
He said that "eating or defeating your own is a sophisticated form of cannibalism." That was in large part a reference to Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), a conservative who helped insurgent tea party candidates defeat moderate Republican incumbents in Utah, Delaware, and Alaska.
Specter, 80, was chased out of the GOP in April 2009 after he provided the crucial vote for President Obama's stimulus bill. He was facing a primary challenge from Republican former Rep. Pat Toomey, who was backed by DeMint and others on the right.
Toomey will take over Specter's seat next month, having defeated Rep. Joe Sestak, who beat Specter in the Democratic primary.
More than a third of the Senate was in the room for at least part of his speech, including Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Thad Cochrane of Mississippi. When he was done, senators stood and applauded, and then crowded around to congratulate him. "Great speech," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif) said, giving him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) rose to praise him, saying Specter belongs on the list of notable Pennsylvania figures with such names as William Penn and Benjamin Franklin. "His impact will be felt for generations, not just decades but generations," Casey said.
There were some awkward moments, as when Specter spoke of the "tyrannical" practice of recent majority leaders' limiting chances for senators to amend bills. That, he argued, has led to a marked increase in filibusters. Sitting in a chair five feet away: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
"At one point he almost slid off the chair," Specter joked in an interview later in his Capitol hideaway office.
In his speech, Specter argued for reforms of Senate procedures, including requiring senators who want to filibuster to actually speak, rather than just threatening to stop a bill. "If you make 'em talk, the talking stops," he said in the interview.
Today, almost every significant action in the chamber requires 60 votes, the number needed to cut off debate and end a filibuster. He reiterated his proposal, made twice over the last six years, that Senate rules be changed so it only takes a simple majority of 51 to stop a filibuster of judicial or executive branch nominations.
"Important positions are left open for months, including judicial nominees with emergency backlogs," Specter said in his speech.
Later in the hideaway, Specter said he was proud that he "never had a filibuster" against any of the nominees for U.S. District Court he sponsored over the years.
Despite his indictment of the modern Senate, Specter said he was optimistic that it -- and the tenor of American politics -- would improve.
"I didn't say this in my speech, but I've said it many times. . . . The Senate's a lot smarter than I am," he said. "It's resilient."
Specter is working on a memoir about the experience of his party switch (his third book), and is expected to practice law and teach a course in the Supreme Court at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
He said he has a "target date" of March for finishing the book. "It's pretty well along. . . . I haven't written the final chapter yet."
Specter mused that he was having nearly six decades' worth of papers, including from his time as an assistant prosecutor and district attorney of Philadelphia, shipped to Philadelphia University, which is planning a Specter library.
He joked that it would be easier to burn the papers than the plaques and awards he has collected. "Those papers are all [about] yesterday," he said. "I'm looking at tomorrow."
Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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