May 8th, 2009
11:57 PM ET

Arlen Specter's Valley of Death

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/05/07/durbin.specter/art.arlen.specter.gi.jpg caption="Sen. Arlen Specter announced last week he is switching to the Democratic Party."]

Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

The Valley of Death is Arlen Specter’s turf. It’s hard to keep track of how many times he has crossed it. This is true regarding his health. And, given the twists and turns of the past week, it is truer than ever politically.

Never Give In

It’s been nearly a year since Arlen Specter beat Hodgkin’s disease - for the second time. CNN had behind the scenes access to the senator’s “never give in” approach to cancer, which you can witness here.

“How you feelin’ today, Senator” asked Dr. Sanjay Gupta last spring. “Not so hot,” said Specter. The senator had woken up at 4 in the morning with a piercing headache from his chemo. What did he do? “Got my squash partner out at 5:30, played a little squash.”

Specter coped with chemo by keeping up his 30 year daily squash routine. It’s been about 30 years since Specter was diagnosed with the incurable Lou Gehrig’s disease. Several months passed before he was told he had been MISdiagnosed - a false positive. Then there were two brain tumors, cardiac arrest, and his first bout with Hodgkin’s disease at age 75. All these journeys out of the valley of death highlight Specter’s resilience. They also help us understand his keen interest in health care issues.

From Bench to Bedside

That’s why his Press Secretary, Kate Kelly, was on the phone with me a week ago Tuesday morning. Kelly was explaining Senator Specter’s newest legislative initiative: The creation of an independent government agency he calls the Cures Acceleration Network - CAN. Two billion dollars a year to “accelerate the development of cures and treatments of disease.” Medical researchers call the multi-year delays from the research bench to the patient’s bedside their own valley of death. I was thankful that Specter’s press secretary pointed me towards this important story. She just forgot to mention one little detail – that when Senator Specter made the health care announcement later that day he would make it as a DEMOCRAT! It’s OK. I learned about it from CNN Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash, with the rest of our audience.

The Switch

Senator Specter was very direct about why he switched parties. If he remained a Republican he’d lose his next primary in 2010 from a challenger who represented the more orthodox core of the Republican party. “I’m not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” said Specter, “not prepared to have that record decided by that jury.”

What leverage he’d have now, we all thought. If Democrat Al Franken is declared the winner of the senate race in Minnesota over Republican Norm Coleman, the Specter switch would give the Democrats a 60 person super-majority in the Senate. A super-majority would make it virtually impossible for Republicans to debate Democratic legislation to death with a filibuster. And Specter’s senior rank, he announced, would remain in tact. He could win over Democrats in his home state of Pennsylvania with the pitch that he’s got the seniority to deliver. Another valley of death averted. Until this week.

What Team Is He On?

On Tuesday night Senate Democrats, led by the Majority Leader Harry Reid, suddenly stripped Specter of his seniority, and made the 29 year Senate veteran a junior member of his most cherished committees. Overnight, his seat at the symbolic center of the long Judiciary Committee table was moved, with his name plate, to the very end of the table. CNN caught up with Specter in a senate hallway Wednesday. He told us Majority Leader Reid had assured him he’d retain the same seniority as if he had been a Democrat since he was first elected to the Senate in 1980. Reid later told Wolf Blitzer he never promised such a thing - that the matter of Specter’s seniority would be decided after the next election.

What happened? Not sure. But some Democrats seemed miffed at Specter’s behavior in the short time he’s been with their party, including a somewhat cryptic comment from him that will appear in this Sunday’s New York Times suggesting he wasn’t necessarily opposed to a victory by Republican Coleman of Minnesota. Reid told Blitzer he went to Specter and asked him what that was about. Specter’s answer, says Reid: “I forgot what team I’m on.” The Valley of Death was back in sight as the sun set on Wednesday.

When I woke up Thursday, guess where Arlen Specter was? Climbing out of that valley again. After the previous day’s duel with Reid, private negotiations ensued. Specter was awarded the chairmanship of a powerful Judiciary subcommittee. Why? CNN’s Dana Bash again had the story. “A Democratic Leadership source who did not want to speak on the record about internal Democratic dynamics told CNN Democrats decided to do this for Specter for two main reasons. First, they want Specter to win (they can taste that supermajority) and this gives him a powerful legislative perch from which to run. Second, the Senate Judiciary committee is about to deal with a new Supreme Court nomination. “The last thing we want,” said this Democratic source, “is a disgruntled Democrat at the end of the dais.”

How Long Will This Be Going On?

Nobody can tell you what lies ahead for Arlen Specter. But it is worth keeping in mind what he told our Dr. Sanjay Gupta last year, in the middle of his 3 month long chemo regimen. "If I run in 2010 and win - and go again in 2016 – win - and go again in the year 2022 - and I'm up for reelection in the year 2028 - at that point I'll be younger than Strom Thurmond was when he was still serving in the United States Senate." The words of a 78 year old man with cancer planning on running for reelection at the age of 98. Enough said.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Michael Schulder
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Terry, TX

    This man was a democrat...then a republican....now a democrat. He now lost his seniority...what did he think was going to happen...the creepy left have done it before. Another democrat will run against in the primary and will beat him. Senator Gregg was scammed also by these Chicago type politicians. Oh you will be the Secretary of Commerce ....then we yank the Census Program and give to Rahm Emmanuel....just another creepy left game.

    May 11, 2009 at 9:33 am |
  2. Lampe

    He left the party, to get re-elected. So now if The Dems, don't give him what he wants, and he doesn't get re-elected, Who will he blame? This wasn't because he thinks The Republican's are going to far left, or right. This is nothing more than a selfish old man, who doesn't know how to play nice. He is acting like a 5 year old. Well, if I don't get re-elected, I'll just take my toys and go home. Well I live in Pa, and all I can say is " Arlen, I hoped you enjoyed you political career, because it is time for you to RETIRE."

    May 9, 2009 at 9:21 pm |

    The theme is don't trust him. He is on no ones side just his own.

    May 9, 2009 at 1:08 pm |
  4. Pel

    I am happy Senator Spector has switched parties, if that what he really wanted to do. I never really saw him a a rapid republican. He was more of a moderate.

    I do not feel he should step to the head of the class in leadership over the Democratic senators who are in place and have been awaiting a leadership position.

    We welcome him but he should not become the Top Dog in the Democratic controlled senate. Look, he or the Repug Senator contender from Pa would have had a hard time against the Democratic Senator Contender.

    We were going to reach the 60 senator mark after the 2010 election

    May 9, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  5. RLWellman

    I think it is time to clean house. All the Senators and Congressmen should be voted out of office. They are to serve the people they represent, not themselves.
    It's time they lose their full salary retirements and health care and be put on Social Security and Medicare like the rest of us poor idiots who pay their salaries. The problems with Medicare and Social Security would be fixed over night if this was done.
    All the incumbents should be voted out, and if the new representatives don't represent us, then they should be voted out also!

    May 9, 2009 at 11:53 am |
  6. Jeanette

    They almost never put the country ahead of their politics, what makes anyone think they will now???????

    May 9, 2009 at 11:41 am |
  7. louise starr

    when i heard specter tell harry reid "that he forgot which party he was with" the old man need to retire or go back to the GOP.

    May 9, 2009 at 11:27 am |
  8. Suzi

    HOpefully, he will fade away into the past very quickly and we won't have to worry if he is bought or how he votes.. It says volumes about character and how much "he really cares about the people who voted him in" under the guise of being a Republican.

    The people in Pennsylvania should be furious and Harry Reid is a weasel. .... but most of us knew that anyway...it didn't take this to know you can't trust a thing that guy promises...Hell, between him and Pelosi who neither can remember what they did yesterday much less remember what they heard or promised last week.....and to think these idiots are running our country. Scary...almost as Scary as Obama giving away our intelligence and war tactics...

    May 9, 2009 at 10:50 am |
  9. Leo

    True, many Dems in the South changed to the GOP but by what I have read, today only about 25% of the American electorate openly identify themselves as GOP. We just went through eight years of the most corrupt Presidency in the history of this nation. Bush made Nixon look like a choir boy by comparison. I admire Spector. He did the right thing. I hope more members of the GOP defect. Things move a little slow here in Dixie. Eventually I hope even in the South people will realize that GOP lacks unity and it is the wrong choice for America. Here's hoping they wake up and stop smelling the honeysuckle nonsense of the good ol' boy mentality.

    May 9, 2009 at 9:46 am |
  10. JoeB

    You know over past years a number of Democrats, mainly from the south, switched parties. What comes around goes around. I just hope that all our elected officals will put the good of the Nation ahead of party politics.

    May 9, 2009 at 2:15 am |
  11. mike

    this guy has no shame and shud care more about the ppl than his self intrest i think all senators over 65 shud go do something else this old ppl hold america back living in the past n they are so sturborn all in the nameof experience but they have experince at telling lies and wasting tax payers money

    May 9, 2009 at 1:02 am |
  12. larry

    I'm not exactly a fan of Arlen Spector, but I do respect his grit. That he has the cajones too not lock into a particular party is a breath of fresh air, in my view. I am an avid supporter of this administration, but would cut them off at the knees if I thought they were putting party or personal gain before the common good of our country.

    May 8, 2009 at 7:31 pm |
  13. no need to know

    Democratic Senator Arlen Spector can do what ever he wishes and let it be know right now NOTHING I mean NOTHING will stop the intelligent movements of President Barack Obama, not even the idiots in the Republican party ie... Minnesota Congress woman Michelle B. or Alaska Governor Sarah P. any of the other misguided nitwits that keep their face on tv ie... Canter, Romney!

    May 8, 2009 at 5:49 pm |
  14. Barry

    Specter has no one to blame except himself! He moved to the Democratic Left because he thought it would help his political aspirations. He gets what he deserves for being a traitor to those voters whom elected him. The Democrat leadership quickly brought him under their control when they told him that he would vote how they want him to vote if he wants to restore his senoirity. I personally find this disturbing since now he is not representing any voters in Pennsylvania but rather he is serving the leadership of the Democratic party and will vote how they want not what is best for his constituents. Our 2 party system is broken by corruption!

    May 8, 2009 at 5:40 pm |
  15. Annie Kate

    Harry Reid once again proves to be a terrible leader for the Democratic party. To strip Specter of his seniority after the switchover announcement was a low blow.

    May 8, 2009 at 5:24 pm |
  16. Gilda

    It's too bad the Senate has forgotten the reason he is in office to serve the people of his state not to follow the polls–this is a very sad situation. I wish him well in his future endeavors.

    May 8, 2009 at 4:36 pm |
  17. Shirley Jackson

    Polish Americans and Slavic Americans: Vote against Arlen Specter, a Jew, who insults you by telling jokes that you are stupid. Many senators, congressmen, presidents, and vice-presidents hate Slavs like you and me. Don't vote for them.

    May 8, 2009 at 4:04 pm |
  18. S Callahan

    Don't kid yourself...this former Repub has more dirt on the long term Dems than the ground holds....he'll get what he wants or there will be h..ll to pay for the resisters. With that said, I really think he wants to see this country move forward, and be a part of that. As long as it is not a NWO.

    May 8, 2009 at 3:42 pm |
  19. david otteson

    The need for term limits should be the tilte of this story.

    May 8, 2009 at 2:17 pm |
  20. Hans Brecker, Newport RI

    real wafflers really waffle

    May 8, 2009 at 1:56 pm |
  21. StevG

    We should all wish him well, and congrats on the latest cure on the dreaded, and hard to cure Repubican disease.

    May 8, 2009 at 1:50 pm |
  22. RealVote

    Real fighters never die (even though some Republican wish they do)

    May 8, 2009 at 1:03 pm |
  23. Milton Smith

    AC360 kicks yall, give the man A RAISE AND A PROMOTION.

    May 8, 2009 at 12:13 pm |