Specter's Defeat Ends a Career as Biomedical Booster

This item has been updated.

Senator Arlen Specter (D–PA), a champion of biomedical research funding, has lost his bid to remain in Congress. The 80-year-old Specter, who switched parties last year, was defeated in the Democratic primary yesterday by Representative Joe Sestak (D–PA) by a 54% to 46% margin.

Specter has spent 30 years in the Senate. As a member of the appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, Specter has long pushed for more funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Prior to his party switch he was one of just three Republicans to vote for President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill. More significantly for scientists, Specter added an amendment to the Senate version to boost NIH's share of the stimulus from $3.5 billion in the House version to $10 billion in the final legislation.

"He has not only talked the talk, but he has delivered for us in multiple, multiple occasions," Ellen Sigal, chair of the nonprofit Friends of Cancer Research, told public radio station WHYY before the election. Who, if anyone, will fill Specter's shoes remains uncertain, especially with the death last year of Senator Ted Kennedy (D–MA), and last month's decision by Representative David Obey (D-WI) not to seek re-election. Both were also fervent backers of medical research. Senator Tom Harkin (D–IA), the current chair of the subcommittee on which Specter sits, has also been a big supporter of NIH.

Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who was first elected to Congress in 2006, will face Pat Toomey, an easy winner in yesterday's Republican primary, in the November general election. "Health care and the research needed—particularly in cancer, as well as in other areas—is what drove me to Congress," Sestak told WHYY, noting his 8-year-old daughter's successful fight 5 years ago against an aggressive brain cancer.

Update: David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges says Specter, a two-time cancer survivor, brought a unique passion to his advocacy of NIH. "I don't think they have the laser-like focus that Specter has had" on supporting biomedical research even in difficult budget times, Moore says. "This was his priority."

Some biomedical lobbyists are already worried about Toomey, who opposed funding specific NIH grants while serving in the House of Representatives earlier this decade. But Moore says his broader concern is that the public may want Congress to scale back federal spending. "That's going to put even more pressure on champions of NIH," Moore says. "It exacerbates the loss of Senator Specter."