Arlen Specter: Man in the Middle

In his 28 years in the Senate, Arlen Specter has been accused of many things. Some of his Republican colleagues grouse in private that he is sanctimonious and unreliable. A Pennsylvania moderate in a party dominated by conservatives, Specter votes with Democrats so often that the GOP once threatened to deny him his Judiciary Committee chairmanship. Meanwhile, Democrats complain he's a fair-weather friend who makes speeches about breaking with his party—but then abandons them when it comes time to vote. Specter "is always with us when we don't need him," Democratic leader Harry Reid tartly wrote in his book "The Good Fight." Not known as much of a charmer, Specter's prickliness earned him a nickname on the Hill: Snarlin' Arlen. (Article continued below...)

But at this point in his career—he is 79 and has survived bouts with cancer—Specter doesn't seem to give a damn what anyone says about him. One thing he'll never be accused of is lacking self-regard. "My voice is very important, I think, to the Republican Party," he says. If ordinary Americans could only see what really goes on in the private meeting rooms on Capitol Hill, he believes, they would surely think, "You need Arlen Specter in the Republican caucus. You need him for the country."

He leaves unspoken what might be the coda to this third-person soliloquy: "You need him in order to win." His colleagues may wince, but for reasons of math Specter now finds himself the most sought-after, and sucked-up-to, member of the Senate. He could wind up casting the deciding vote on major issues, including health-care and energy reform. Here's why: Senate rules say the Democrats need 60 votes to keep Republicans from filibustering. Even if Al Franken is (finally) seated, they're one maddening vote shy. They'll need a Republican defector, not an easy thing to get. On big votes, leaders bully members into standing with the party, and senators, fearing retaliation, usually comply. (Some Democrats are pressing the leadership to resort to a controversial parliamentary maneuver that would let them pass the bills with a simple majority.)

In recent years, Specter has broken with his party nearly 40 percent of the time. In February he infuriated GOP colleagues when he voted for President Obama's stimulus package, saying it was necessary to get the economy going. Specter sometimes brings along other defectors. Republican moderates Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe watch to see which way he leans; both followed his lead on the stimulus.

Specter casts his infidelities to his party in grand terms. He says his fellow senators become so wrapped up in political wrangling that they fail to judge issues on merit. "There's no virtue in bipartisanship," he says. "The virtue is in independent judgment and the willingness to listen and think about something."

Yet one might be forgiven for thinking that politics, if not party, is very much at work in Specter's votes. He comes from a swing state that is trending Democratic; most of Specter's constituents voted for Barack Obama and supported the stimulus. As a Republican, he has the luxury of being able to thwart his party without fearing retribution from the folks back home. In fact, he may have to do it to survive. At home, he is under attack from all sides. In his last campaign, in 2004, he faced a tough conservative GOP challenger in the primary, and a liberal Democratic opponent in the general election. He has kept his seat in part by playing up his independence and assuring voters from both parties that he is beholden to no one.

Specter knows that this dance he does is an irritant to GOP leaders, and he has been careful not to poke his finger in their eyes too often. On balance, he is still more loyal than disloyal. Sometimes he strays at first, only to run back home just in time. Last month Specter surprised everyone when he dropped his support for "card check," the controversial labor bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize. Most Republicans strongly oppose it, making Specter's vote critical to Democrats.

"He was a goddam cosponsor!" a Democratic strategist seethed to NEWSWEEK. (He asked not to be named slamming the senator.) Specter says he felt the bill would hurt businesses already burdened by the recession. Strategists from both parties saw the flip-flop as a calculated move to shore up his standing with Republican voters—and donors—after abandoning them on the stimulus vote.

This is the trouble for Republicans and Democrats who want Specter's blessing: there's no telling how he will use his swing vote. The White House is trying to win him over. Specter has "the rarest of all combinations," Joe Biden said in a recent speech in Pennsylvania. "It's the profound intellect to comprehend what is most important for the country, and the willingness … to risk your career for it."

Republicans can't quite muster Bidenesque levels of obsequiousness when it comes to Specter, but they try. "I'm very happy to have Arlen Specter as a colleague," says GOP leader Mitch McConnell. "He is almost always there when I need him." Others are less diplomatic. "I certainly don't have any comment about him," John McCain said with a huff when a NEWSWEEK reporter asked for his thoughts on Specter last week.

Specter can handle the wrath of his colleagues. The greater danger is that he winds up on the wrong side of the voters. His former Republican challenger, Pat Toomey, is raising money for a rematch next year. State party officials aren't thrilled with Specter, but worry he's the only thing keeping the seat from going to a Democrat. Republicans are still very angry about the stimulus vote, and Toomey, a fiscal conservative, will use it against him. "If it costs me my seat, I'm prepared to eat it," Specter says. Does that really concern him? "Of course it does," he says, his impatience rising. "What do you think I am, a mo-ron?" Hardly. Call Arlen Specter what you will (everyone else does), but you certainly can't call him that.