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The Arlen Specter Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Arlen Specter Center for Public Service at Thomas Jefferson University, through a generous contribution from the Specter family, supported this research. Special thanks to Karen Albert and Evan Laine, the founding faculty of the Specter Center. Senator Specter’s papers are housed at the University of Pittsburgh. My research was aided by Pitt archivist Ashley Laine Taylor. Allison Brooks helped with access to papers from the George W. Bush library.


Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter sat at the center of battles over stem cell research. Focusing on Specter’s efforts allows sustained exploration of policy entrepreneurship in the Senate. Building on Fenno’s seminal work on Arlen Specter, which focused mostly on Specter’s first term in office. Specter’s early work on criminal justice policy helped to prepare him for the weighty work involved in the stem cell debate. However, it was his ascendance on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and his position on the Labor, Health, and Human Services subcommittee in particular, that allowed him to become a leader on the stem cell issue. Specter’s work on the Judiciary Committee stereotyped Specter as a “show horse,” his work on stem cell research highlights his “workhorse” qualities.

I begin with an overview of agenda setting and policy entrepreneurship in Congress. The purpose of the discussion is to place Senator Arlen Specter’s legislative activities in a theoretical context. I then turn to the politics and policy that shaped the debate surrounding stem cell research. In particular, I demonstrate how the development of stem cell policy necessarily tiptoed through the minefield of abortion politics. I then discuss Senator Specter’s involvement in shaping stem cell research policy by focusing on several vignettes where his involvement illustrates the important role of the political entrepreneur. Despite what sometimes appears as “failure,” we gain insight into the role of Specter as a policy entrepreneur and this role in shaping public policy.

This work contributes to the literature on Congress and public policy in several ways. Making extensive use of newly available archival material I contribute to our historical understanding of stem cell policy and its relationship to abortion policy. Focusing on Senator Arlen Specter allows us to examine how policy leaders learn and adapt to political and institutional change to realize their policy goals. It also expands our understanding of policy entrepreneurs. Many students of legislative entrepreneurship focus on legislative accomplishment—success. Specter did not pass any landmark legislation into law related to stem cell research. This study addresses a blind spot in the study of legislative entrepreneurs; the skills policy leaders use to prevent legislation from becoming law