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In his view, Specter key to Obama's Senate wins

He cited his stimulus, health-care votes.

Outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., talks with reporters about one of his favorite pictures - of himself and President George Bush in his office Thursday on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo / Alex Brandon)
Outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., talks with reporters about one of his favorite pictures - of himself and President George Bush in his office Thursday on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo / Alex Brandon)Read more

WASHINGTON - Outgoing Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter didn't spill his guts - he has to keep some good material in reserve for the memoir he is writing, after all - but he discussed his political legacy Thursday in the first wide-ranging interview since his defeat in the Democratic primary.

Specter suggested that he played a critical part in advancing President Obama's agenda, said history would vindicate his much-ridiculed vote of "not proven" in the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, and drily said he "aided and abetted" Anita Hill's advancement of women's rights with his aggressive cross-examination of her at the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

A fixture in U.S. politics for more than a generation, Specter, 80, was a leading Republican moderate who often went his own way, confounding both parties. He will be out of office when the new Congress convenes Jan. 5, having found that becoming a Democrat (as he was as a young man) could not save him in an anti-incumbent election year.

Specter was in an upbeat mood as he spoke to a group of reporters for about 75 minutes in his hideaway office on the first floor of the Capitol, a sunny room whose walls are lined with pictures of him with presidents and world leaders, Soviet propaganda posters, and other mementos - including a framed copy of the Articles of Impeachment against Clinton, signed by all 100 senator/jurors, the House members who prosecuted the then-president, and Clinton himself.

"My son Shanin says it's missing one signature still: Monica Lewinsky," Specter said.

Though he clearly relishes the job of senator and feels he did not accomplish all he meant to during his 30 years in office, "it's time to move on," Specter said.

Specter had a crucial role in getting Obama's 2009 stimulus bill passed, and cast the 60th vote this year to make sure that health-care overhaul and tighter financial-industry regulations cleared the Senate - "the three biggest measures he has gotten passed," Specter said.

They were all the right things to do, he said, even if the stimulus vote cost him his job. The uproar from conservatives afterward drove him from his longtime Republican Party home in April 2009, and he was not able to win the nomination of his new party for a sixth term, despite support from the White House and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment.

Obama has not made any offer of post-Senate employment in the administration.

"I'm not interested in a cabinet position, and if something should arise where he wanted me to serve in something I thought I could make a difference on, that's a possibility, but there's nothing in the offing," Specter said.

He declined to talk about the perception among political analysts that Obama abandoned him late in the Democratic primary campaign against Rep. Joe Sestak, when a presidential visit to Pennsylvania might have boosted him. "I've got to save a little something for my book," Specter said.

A former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman known for being a stickler on legal issues, Specter voted "not proven" in Clinton's impeachment trial on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice - a verdict available in Scottish law, but foreign to the U.S. system.

"I've taken a lot of ribbing about that over the years. History will vindicate me on that," Specter said.

"We didn't have a trial," with testimony and examination of witnesses as the Constitution requires, he said. "We had a bunch of records, hearsay. . . . I wasn't going to vote to convict him without evidence."

Specter said that not a week goes by when he doesn't hear about his grilling of Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. He nearly lost his 1992 reelection bid because of anger over his performance at the widely watched hearings.

On the night before the May 18 primary, Specter said, he was surrounded by TV crews in Pittsburgh when a woman walked up and demanded to know when he would apologize for what he did to Hill.

Specter has not apologized, but he prefers to look on the bright side.

"Anita Hill has done more to advance women's interests in our society and the world than almost anyone," Specter said. "I aided and abetted," he said, tongue in cheek.

Later, as Judiciary Committee chairman, Specter had a major role in the 2005 confirmations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. He has been scathing in denouncing their ruling earlier this year that legalized the use of anonymous corporate money in political campaigns, saying it violated their confirmation-hearing assurances that they would not be activist judges.

"They can still redeem themselves," Specter said.

The senator said he has offers to practice law, will teach a class at University of Pennsylvania's law school on Supreme Court confirmations, and hopes to get a regular commentary position on radio or TV. And he is writing the memoir, his third, focusing on the party switch.

Specter's papers from his long career in public service are headed to Philadelphia University, which plans to renovate an old building on the East Falls campus as his library. Specter will have an office there and may teach courses. The proposal became a controversy in the governor's race because of a $1.9 million state grant approved by Gov. Rendell, which is to be matched by an equal amount from the university.

Republican Gov.-elect Tom Corbett used the library in a campaign TV ad to slam wasteful Harrisburg spending, though the ad misstated the cost as $10 million.

"I've been in this line of work too long to be offended by damn near anything," Specter said.

In a couple of weeks, former Rep. Pat Toomey, a prominent leader in the Republican Party's conservative wing, will take over Specter's seat. It was a GOP primary challenge from Toomey that led Specter to switch parties; polls showed he could not beat Toomey, who had also challenged Specter in 2004.

Toomey and he have not spoken, Specter said, though he sent a letter of congratulations right after the Nov. 2 election, and Toomey replied cordially, thanking the Specter staff for its help in the transition.

Earlier this week, Specter spent a fair amount of time in his final Senate floor statement assailing Republicans who have driven moderates out of the party in a quest for ideological purity. But in the interview, he did not want to speculate whether Toomey would be part of that problem.

"Campaign rhetoric is one thing; governing is another," Specter said. "I'm going to wait and see how he performs."