US & Canada

Former US senator Arlen Specter dies

Arlen Specter attends a reception in honour of Jewish American Heritage Month May 27, 2010
Image caption Arlen Specter was Pennsylvania's longest serving senator

Arlen Specter, the former senator for Pennsylvania who late in life crossed the political divide from Republican to Democrat, has died aged 82.

He passed away at home on Sunday from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, the AP reported.

An independent-minded moderate, he spent three decades as a Republican senator before switching to Democrat in 2009 and losing the election.

He left the Republican party because he said it had become too conservative.

The son of a junkyard owner, Specter was born in 1930 in Russell, Kansas. He later moved to Pennsylvania to go to college, as his local university did not have Jewish fraternities.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania he went to Yale law school in 1956, entering politics as a Democrat in Philadelphia in the 1960s.

Politically divisive

The veteran politician, who became Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator, had been at the heart of several major political events.

He served on the Warren Commission investigating John F Kennedy's assassination, developing the single-bullet theory that suggested there was only one killer.

The senator also played a key role in several Supreme Court nominations, notably skewering the 1987 nomination of conservative Robert Bork.

The move infuriated many of his fellow Republicans, but four years later he angered liberals when he backed conservative Clarence Thomas.

Specter took credit for helping to defeat President Bill Clinton's national healthcare plan and helped lead the investigation into Gulf War syndrome, the name given to a collection of symptoms experienced by veterans of the war. He also pushed for increased funding into bio-medical research.

He was seen by his colleagues as an intellectual and stubborn politician, someone who was not afraid to take controversial positions and always up for a political fight.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that Specter "was fiercely independent - never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve", adding that the politician had used the story of his own struggles to inspire others.

When Specter switched back to the Democrats, aged 79, after 30 years as a Republican, he told reporters: "As the Republican party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic party."

But he also admitted that he feared he would not get re-elected as the Republican nominee, having only narrowly scraped through four years earlier.

That led Democrats in Pennsylvania to turn against him, choosing Joe Sestak as their nominee instead.

During his time in the Senate, Specter survived two previous bouts of Hodgkin lymphoma, a brain tumour and cardiac arrest.

He wrote a book about his experiences called "Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate," saying he wanted to let others facing similar crises "know they are not alone".

Specter is survived by his wife and two sons.

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