HARRISBURG, Pa. – For most of his 30 years as Pennsylvania’s longest-serving U.S. senator and prominent moderate in Congress, Arlen Specter was a Republican, though often at odds with the Republican leadership.

He helped end the Supreme Court hopes of former federal appeals Judge Robert Bork, who was nominated by President Reagan. Decades later, he was one of only three Republicans in Congress to vote for President Obama’s economic stimulus.

His breaks with his party were hardly a surprise: He had begun his political career as a Democrat and ended it as one, too.

In between, he was at the heart of several major American political events. He rose to prominence in the 1960s as an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, developing the single-bullet theory in President Kennedy’s assassination.

He came to the Senate in the 1980 Reagan landslide and was a key voice in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of both Bork and Clarence Thomas.

Specter died Sunday at his home in Philadelphia from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said his son Shanin. He was 82. Specter had fought two previous bouts with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, overcome a brain tumor and survived cardiac arrest following bypass surgery.

Intellectual and stubborn, Specter took the lead on a wide spectrum of issues and was no stranger to controversy.

In one of his last major political acts, Specter startled fellow senators in April 2009 when he announced he was joining the Democrats. He said he was “increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy,” although he said the Democrats could not count on him to be “an automatic 60th vote” that would give them a filibuster-proof majority.

Specter rose to prominence in the 1960s as an aggressive Philadelphia prosecutor and during his time on the Warren Commission. He was the chief author of the theory that a single bullet had hit both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally, an assumption critical to the conclusion that presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. The theory remains controversial.

In 1987, Specter helped thwart Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Specter, always a champion of civil rights, said he could not trust Bork to adhere to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, earning him conservative enemies.

But four years later, Specter was criticized by liberals for his tough questioning of Anita Hill at Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings and for accusing her of committing “flat-out perjury.”

Specter brought up Hill’s alleged inconsistencies and blindsided the staid University of Oklahoma law professor with bizarre allegations of psychological issues in her relationships with men. The interrogation, televised nationally, incensed women’s groups and nearly cost him his seat in 1992.

Specter took credit for helping to defeat President Clinton’s national health care plan — whose complexities he highlighted in a gigantic chart — and helped lead the investigation into Gulf War syndrome, the name given to a collection of symptoms experienced by veterans of the war that include fatigue, memory loss, pain and insomnia.

After the Iran-Contra scandal, Specter pushed legislation that created the inspectors general of the CIA, which later exposed Aldrich Ames as a Soviet spy.

But Specter was not afraid to buck his fellow Republicans.

As a senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he pushed for increased funding for stem-cell research, breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and supported several labor-backed initiatives in a Republican-led Congress.

In 1995, he launched a presidential bid, denouncing religious conservatives as the “fringe” that plays too large a role in setting the party’s agenda. Specter, who was Jewish, bowed out before the first primary because of lackluster fundraising.

After leaving the Senate in 2011, Specter became an adjunct faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

A funeral was scheduled for Tuesday in Penn Valley, Pa.

 

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