Nearly a third of the U.S. Senate showed up to hear Sen. Arlen Specter's farewell speech this week. That the number was considered notable — it was a more sizable audience than most of his departing colleagues had garnered — doesn't speak well for the Senate, but it is testament to the widespread respect for the longest-serving senator from Pennsylvania.
The fact that his speech, which he dubbed his "closing argument," drew both Democrats and Republicans also attests to the unusual role the senator played over a span of three decades. Before his dramatic switch to the Democratic Party prior to the Senate primary in May, Specter stood among just a handful of moderate Republicans whose votes and positions often defied party politics. He was sometimes seen as an opportunist without any real convictions, yet he represented an independence and moderation that has nearly vanished from the halls of Congress.
Specter himself lamented this shift in his goodbye speech. He contrasted his early days in Congress, when the moderate Republican caucus numbered more than a dozen, to more recent years when "the moderates could fit into a telephone booth."
He also derided the lack of collegiality and spirit of compromise that once pervaded the chamber. "In some quarters, compromise has become a dirty word," he said, adding that "politics is no longer the art of the possible when senators are intransigent in their positions."
His gambles sometimes cost him dearly, and he was written off many times in his career. By most accounts, his 2009 vote with the Democrats for the $825 billion economic stimulus package was the final nail, leading him to abandon the Republican Party, thinking — incorrectly, it turned out — that he had a better chance in the Democratic primary.
It is perhaps ironic that his farewell came as the lame- duck session of Congress managed to muster enough bipartisan support to pass — to the surprise of many — a number of initiatives.
Among the bills that passed in the final days of the 111th Congress were a tax-cut deal and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which many Jewish groups had supported. Also likely to pass was the ratification of the START nuclear arms reduction treaty.
With the nation bracing for gridlock and off-the-charts partisan bickering for the next two years — under an Obama administration and a split Congress — it was refreshing to see that the art of compromise is still possible, that where there is a will, there is a way to get things done.
Specter's departure marks the end of an era — for Pennsylvania, for the Philadelphia Jewish community, which provided major support throughout his career, and for the voice of moderation in the U.S. Congress. We wish him well as he moves on to new adventures. We likely haven't heard the last of this senator.