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Senator Specter defects to Democrats, strenghtening Obama's hand

Tuesday's switch by the independent-minded Pennsylvanian also helps Democrats to solidify power in the Senate.

By Staff writer / April 28, 2009

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania talks with reporters outside of the Senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington Tuesday. Specter announced he is switching political parties and will become a Democrat.

HARRY HAMBURG/AP

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Washington

Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, a veteran Senate Republican, shocked the political world Tuesday when he announced he is becoming a Democrat.

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The move by the 79-year-old, four-term senator could potentially give the Democratic Party its 60th vote in the Senate, allowing the party to halt filibusters without the help of any Republicans. The implications for President Obama’s agenda are significant, as he prepares reforms to the healthcare system, energy, and financial regulation.

Currently, Democrats hold 58 of the Senate’s 100 seats, but if Democrat Al Franken prevails in his protracted battle with Republican Norm Coleman in their close Minnesota Senate contest, the addition of Senator Specter brings the number to 60. Mr. Franken is currently ahead, and Senator Coleman’s prospects look dim in his continuing court battle.

Which one changed?

Specter framed his decision to quit the troubled GOP as one of the party leaving him, not changes within himself.

“Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right,” he said in a statement released early Tuesday afternoon. “Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

Senate majority leader Harry Reid immediately welcomed Specter to his team and hinted that he had been wooing him for some time: “Senator Specter and I have had a long dialogue about his place in an evolving Republican Party,” Senator Reid said in a statement. “We have not always agreed on every issue, but Senator Specter has shown a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, put people over party, and do what is right for Pennsylvanians and all Americans.”

Specter is known for his independent streak, and by no means will the “D” after his name instead of an “R” guarantee his cooperation on any given vote. But it at least creates a presumption of a Democratic leaning.

A reelection calculation

Specter’s switch also changes the calculation in what was shaping up to be a tough reelection battle in 2010. He faced a rerun of his 2004 primary against Pat Toomey, a former Pennsylvania congressman and former head of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which Specter barely won 51 to 49 percent.