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Specter Claims Kemp Would Be Alive if Congress Better Funded Medical Research

Sen. Arlen Specter speaks at a news conference in Washington Thursday. (Reuters Photo)

Jack Kemp would still be alive if the federal government had done a better job funding cancer research, Sen. Arlen Specter said Sunday, one day after Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee and former congressman, died of cancer.

The Pennsylvania senator, who last week switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, made the claim on two Sunday shows. 

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Specter suggested that one of the reasons he left the GOP was because it did not share his interest in funding medical research. 

"Frankly, I was disappointed that the Republican Party didn't want me as their candidate. But as a matter of principle, I'm becoming much more comfortable with the Democrats' approach," Specter said. "And one of the items that I'm working on ... is funding for medical research. I've been the spear carrier to increase medical research." 

Specter added: "If we had pursued what President Nixon declared in 1970 as the war on cancer, we would have cured many strains. I think Jack Kemp would be alive today. And that research has saved or prolonged many lives, including mine."  

Specter has been treated for Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Through his Web site, specterforthecure.com, the senator has called for more federal resources and funding to be directed toward medical research. 

Specter on Sunday touted his record of increasing funding for research for the National Institutes of Health. His Web site details the strides he's made -- "doubling the nation's health research budget" and helping include funding for the NIH in the stimulus bill. 

But his claims about Nixon's "war on cancer" and Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills MVP who died of an undisclosed cancer after a lengthy illness, raised eyebrows -- since the government has devoted billions to cancer research since Nixon's call in 1971 for a campaign to find a cancer cure. 

The National Cancer Institute had a $4.8 billion budget in fiscal 2008. Since the early '70s, the National Cancer Institute's budgets have totaled more than $80 billion, according to historical budget statistics. 

"We are spending more money on cancer research -- public and private -- than President Nixon ever dreamed," said one column critical of Specter's comments on The American Thinker blog. 

In a statement to FOXNews.com, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer said there's "room for more progress" but noted the achievements researchers have made in past decades in the areas of cancer prevention and treatment. 

Otis Brawley said that while more than 560,000 Americans will likely die this year from cancer, there is evidence that more than 530,000 have not died since 1991 "because of the war on cancer." 

Brawley noted that Nixon's proposals allowed the NCI director to estimate the agency's budgetary needs each year, and that to date the federal budget for cancer research has averaged 75 to 80 percent of what is recommended. 

He said despite the progress, "we could have done more and should," noting that NCI funding in recent years has not risen significantly. He said funding support for research has been "drying up." 

Under President Bill Clinton, annual NCI funding rose from about $2 billion to $3 billion by the end of his second term. Under President George W. Bush, that increased to about $4.6 billion in fiscal 2003, but stayed at between $4.7 and $4.8 billion in subsequent years. 

President Obama publicly shared Specter's concern about funding for research last week at the National Academy of Sciences. Obama bemoaned what he described as insufficient funding for overall scientific research, pledging to make a "historic" investment with the goal of directing 3 percent of the country's GDP toward such research and development. 

Brawley said in his statement that "cancer research has once again become a top national priority," citing Obama's pledges to increase funding. 

Specter has also tied his commitment to increased funding for medical research to his re-election campaign. His Web site asserts that his presence in the Senate is critical to medical research. 

"In 2010, Arlen Specter will seek re-election to the United States Senate. Without Arlen Specter back in the Senate to see it through, Specter for the Cure could be lost to the ordinary politics of Washington that kills real change," the site says. "With his unsurpassed record of support for medical research, helping to return Senator Specter to the Senate is a powerful statement on behalf of those suffering with disease." 

Specter also drew the connection on "Face the Nation." 

"When you talk about life and death and medical research, that's a much more major consideration on what I can do, continuing in the Senate, contrasted with which party I belong to," he said. 

Specter made similar comments on NBC's "Meet the Press."