[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."]
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.
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.
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