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Specter struggling with two tenacious foes — cancer and his party's right wing.
 

Senator Takes On Cancer Like Another Adversary

Arlen Specter has been in the middle of many battles. With Hodgkin's he's no moderate.

When Sen. Arlen Specter gets out of bed at 6 a.m. each day, he no longer recognizes the face that greets him in the bathroom mirror. The tangle of auburn hair is gone. The skin is ashen and hangs from the corners of his mouth. The eyes are rimmed with red.

Specter has five weeks to go in a six-month course of chemotherapy. At the same time, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — a moderate Republican despised by many conservatives and distrusted by many Democrats — is confronting not only his mortality but what could be the most challenging period in his long political career.

 

If a Supreme Court resignation comes soon, as many in Washington believe, it will be Specter's job to prepare for and preside over Judiciary Committee hearings on President Bush's pick for the vacancy. And those hearings are expected to produce the biggest congressional made-for-television spectacle since the Clinton impeachment case.

Specter would face a tough job during the best of times. But these have hardly been the best of times for the 75-year-old Pennsylvanian.

Under attack from the Republican Party's conservative wing, he barely held on to the committee chairmanship last fall. Six weeks later, he was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare blood cancer. According to doctors, the disease had spread from the lymph nodes, where it starts, to other organs in his body.

Since then, Specter has been struggling with two tenacious foes — cancer and his party's right wing.

"The medical problems are obviously difficult," he said, describing the chemotherapy as "tough but tolerable."  "I find that the busier I am, the less time I have to think about myself. And there's been a lot of opportunity to be very busy."

That would be an understatement, one of many Specter is wont to make.

For instance, he plays down the impact of the hostility directed his way from social conservatives, saying he has "made a conscious decision not to disagree with the political activism of religious groups."  And he plays down the difficulty of the chemotherapy, recounting how he has yet to miss a committee meeting and still plays squash three or four times a week.  He delivers his signature line with gusto: "I've beat a brain tumor, I've beat bypass surgery, a lot of political opponents, and I'm going to beat this too."

But the cancer has taken its toll, and it's not done with him yet.

Specter's raspy voice has lost some of its volume, and he pauses from time to time to clear his throat or nose. He keeps a tissue folded on his knee, and raises it every few minutes to wipe his eyes, which water constantly.

When pressed, Specter acknowledges that he finds it hard to eat in the days after his biweekly chemotherapy sessions, and has dropped a few pounds from his already slender frame. He has a persistent headache, which he describes as an "overhang" above his eyes.

He has given up his daily martini, because it no longer tastes palatable, as well as drinking bottled water — which also tastes bad as a result of the chemotherapy.  Instead, he drinks Gatorade and sometimes beer. And makes jokes about his "new hairdo."

"You look pretty good this way," he told a bald reporter during an April news conference as the last wisps of his own hair were falling out.

Doctors have given Specter a 70% chance of beating his Hodgkin's — a better prognosis than for some forms of cancer, but far from a certainty.

Some cancer patients, especially those beyond retirement age, choose to reduce or take leave from work to marshal their forces to beat the disease and spend more time with family and friends in case they don't succeed. But not Specter, who insists he has the physical strength to lead Senate Republicans through a Supreme Court nomination battle.

 

"I can't say that when there's a need for energy, that there's any shortage," Specter said...

"He just wants to keep what he's doing," said Edward Becker, a judge on the federal appellate court in Philadelphia who had been Specter's friend for more than 50 years. "When you have major responsibilities, when you have interesting work, you don't pull back. He hasn't thought for a moment about pulling back."

Friends and colleagues also said Specter was not one to draw attention to his woes, be they physical or political...  Since Congress convened in January, Specter's Judiciary Committee has been at the center of the legislative action. The panel guided into law a bill curbing class action lawsuits and another tightening bankruptcy rules. It is now pushing a third measure that would create a trust fund to pay the victims of asbestos-related diseases.

All three bills had languished for years in the Senate and this year were voted out of committee primarily because Specter strong-armed senators from both parties.

And then there was the showdown over Democratic filibusters of Bush's nominees to the federal bench. Specter supported the nominees, but pointedly took no stance on whether to prevent filibusters of judicial nominees, a rule change other Senate GOP leaders sought. Instead, he positioned himself as a kind of truth-teller to both parties, repeatedly telling each they were both at fault in the dispute.

"The Senate has arrived at this confrontation … as each side ratcheted up the ante in delaying and denying confirmation to the other party's presidential nominees," Specter said in May as the issue neared its climax...

If a Supreme Court justice retires this summer, the fights of the last six months may come to be seen as little more than a warmup for the battle over filling the vacancy. The most likely retiree is Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has thyroid cancer.

One Democratic congressional staff member, who has worked with Specter for years and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it seemed Specter's illness might have intensified his drive to be at the center of the fray.  "Arlen is a supremely confident individual," the aide said. "If this is truly life-threatening, maybe it gives him even more confidence. After all, what else can they do to him?"

During the week, Specter keeps up a workaholic routine, scheduled dawn to dusk in 15-minute intervals, starting most days with an hour of squash. On the weekends, especially those following his chemotherapy treatments, he recuperates at home in Philadelphia or at his beach house in New Jersey, spending time with Joan, his wife of 52 years, his two sons and four granddaughters.

Starting long before he was elected to the Senate in 1980, Specter has been drawn to controversy.

As a 33-year-old prosecutor from Philadelphia, he served as an investigator for the Warren Commission and formulated the "Single Bullet Theory" to explain the assassination of President Kennedy — a theory he still defends.

In the Senate, he played a crucial role in two earlier fights over Supreme Court nominees, and alienated both ends of the political spectrum along the way.

He earned the enmity of the GOP's right wing in 1987 when he was the only Republican on the Judiciary Committee to vote against Robert H. Bork, whose nomination ultimately was rejected by the full Senate.

Women's groups and most of the political left attacked him in 1991 when he led the hostile questioning of Anita Hill, who had accused nominee Clarence Thomas, her former employer, of sexual harassment...

In recent years, he has found himself increasingly out of step with his fellow Republicans as the party has grown more conservative. For instance, Specter favors abortion rights, and has promoted embryonic stem cell research, positions that have angered many conservatives.

When Specter was poised to take over the Judiciary Committee last fall, conservative groups mounted an intense lobbying campaign against him.  "Sen. Specter is a big-time problem for us," James Dobson, founder of the influential conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, said at the time. "He must be derailed."

Specter managed to keep the chairmanship, but not without spending two weeks pleading his case to Republican colleagues and the White House and issuing an unusual written pledge not to block nominees who opposed abortion.

In the months since, the vitriol from the right has subsided some as Specter shepherded half a dozen of Bush's controversial appellate court nominees through the Judiciary committee. But conservative activists said they were unwilling to let Specter off the hook just yet. "I'm sure he knows everyone is watching to see if he will continue to live up to that agreement [on not opposing an abortion foe] at the most critical time of a Supreme Court nomination," said Wendy Wright, senior policy director for Concerned Women for America, a conservative group.

For his part, Specter insists his independence is intact. He disagrees vehemently with conservatives who insist justices uphold the "original intent" of the Constitution. He argues that "original intent" would require the public galleries above the Senate chamber to remain segregated by race.

"You cannot tie the judicial process in a neat bow, find original intent and run the country for 200 years-plus on what somebody thinks the Founding Fathers meant," Specter said. "You have a country with evolving values and the court has reflected those values."

Specter's chemotherapy should be complete at the end of July, and if there is a resignation from the court, congressional hearings probably would start in August or September. But for the moment, a vacancy is just a rumor and Specter's plans for those months remains simpler.

"I'm going to grow my hair back," he said. "And it's going to be thicker and it's going to be curlier and it's going to be darker."
 
 

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