The late Sen. Arlen Specter, (D-Pa.) at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Political leaders paused Sunday to mourn the loss of Arlen Specter, the long-serving former Pennsylvania senator whose friends and foes across the political spectrum praised the passionate, if combative, lawmaker who crossed political lines in a way that seems unimaginable in today's partisan era.
"Arlen Specter was always a fighter," President Obama said in a statement. "From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent – never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve."
"He brought that same toughness and determination to his personal struggles, using his own story to inspire others," the president said, adding that his efforts to advance stem-cell research funding, veterans health and other issues "will continue to change lives for years to come." Specter died Sunday at 82 after battling twice battling cancer, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and other serious illnesses.
Photos: Arlen Specter through the years
His 30-year career in the Senate made him a lion of an earlier and sometimes unrecognizable era in Washington — having started his career as a Democrat before becoming a Republican, only to switch once again in his final unsuccessful reelection campaign in 2010.
Specter's most notable work came on the Judiciary Committee, where he played key roles in confirmation of presidential appointees to the Supreme Court, particularly his grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Even before his late-career switch back to the Democratic Party he provided crucial support for Obama's policies.
"Sen. Specter was a man of moderation; he was always passionate but always easy to work with," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "America is better today because of Arlen Specter.
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who had worked opposite Specter as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, recalled his "longtime friend and colleague" as "a spirited man" who represented his state's values with "great integrity and conviction." Chad Griffin, the chairman of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocacy group, noted Specter's critical vote to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law barring gay personnel from serving opening in the military. Obama signed the bill into law in 2010.
"While we disagreed with his support for some conservative judicial nominees, which will leave a lasting negative impact on our community, he was willing to work across party lines to get things done," Griffin said in a statement, noting Specter's support for funding for stem cell research "at a time when it was difficult for a Republican senator to speak out."
Photos: Notable deaths of 2012
"He was a wonderful friend and colleague and a truly principled and effective public servant," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, another senator who switched party affiliation (he is an Independent Democrat) in the face of an electoral challenge, and is retiring this year. "Arlen was a man of the law who studied the law, enforced the law, made laws and lived according to the law. He leaves a great and living legacy of legislative accomplishments, one of which is the billions of dollars he secured for the war against cancer being waged by the National Institutes of Health."
Fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, the Republican who defeated Specter in 2010, called him "a man of sharp intelligence and dogged determination."
Another fellow Judiciary Committee member, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, now the panel's chairman, said Specter "always understood the interest of the county had to come before the interest of the party."
Leahy, first elected in the Watergate wave of 1974, said Specter "embodied the best values of the Senate.
Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook