The Hole Specter Leaves in the Senate

The anti-Washington mood in the country has Washington on edge, as two moderate Democrats’ jobs were on the line Tuesday, with one of them losing his, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Most veteran Democratic strategists agree that the Senate race in the Keystone state now will be much harder for Democrats with the Cong. Joe Sestak running against conservative Republican Pat Toomey, but either man will be new to the Senate.  Each will start with no seniority.

Specter, in the Senate for more than 30 years, had gained a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, known for members bringing home the bacon.

And more particularly, Specter’s senior status on the Labor, Health and Human Services subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee will mean major changes for the health community (remember – Specter is a two-time non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor), in particular the National Institutes of Health, a beneficiary of billions in targeted funding from Specter’s efforts along with the senior Dem on that committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA.

Another large hole left by Specter, a former Philly prosecutor, is on the Judiciary Committee.  The senator, who served as chairman of the committee for years, shepherded through the Bush Administration’s two Supreme Court justices (in between chemotherapy treatments, to boot) and many other judicial nominees.  The cantankerous Specter, of course, was first threatened by his GOP colleagues who nearly withheld the gavel of the committee out of fear Specter, an unpredictable maverick, might not support conservative judges.  Specter was a survivor.

The Specter departure at the end of this year also represents part of a chapter in the history of the Senate one might call “The Changing of the Guard.”   In the past handful of years, old school legislators, like Specter, including Sens. John Warner, R-VA, Pete Domenici, R-NM, Trent Lott, D-MS, Jon Breaux, D-LA, and the late Ted Kennedy, D-MA, along with retiring Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, are hitting the exits at a quick pace, changing the very nature of the clubby chamber.  (One could also lump Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, into that mix – though he is still a current member, his age and frail health often take him out of the mix.)

These old bulls represent a different time – one where senators, regardless of party, could fight ruthless legislative brawls by day and then grab a drink and some dinner by night, one where (mostly) men could hash out complex legislative issues for months behind closed doors and emerge with a true bipartisan compromise.  Many are/were like brothers.

More incumbents could easily follow Specter:

  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, who said Tuesday, “We’re doing just fine in Nevada;  
  • Sens. Bob Bennett, R-UT, who was just handed his walking papers through a unique party-insiders’ convention process – though he’s holding out the possibility of a write-in or Independent candidacy;
  • John McCain, R-AZ, who is in an increasingly tougher primary against former Cong. J. D. Hayworth;
  • And Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, facing a crowded field of GOP challengers

Specter, a son of Russian immigrants, also had a strong penchant for foreign affairs, something not as popular now in a Senate dominated more by law and order politicians and business-oriented members.  Each year, Specter would travel to Israel, and oftentimes to more controversial countries like Syria.

What will happen now, as Specter takes his leave, possibly joined by some of his longtime colleagues, is truly anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain, the Senate is sure to be a different place as members are increasingly younger, many more have children, and many, many more are ideologues in their party.