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

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

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.

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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.

Now, Specter should breeze to victory in the Democratic primary, with few declared candidates and none of his stature, and could face Mr. Toomey in the general. But given the travails of the Republican Party, both nationally and in Pennsylvania, Specter at this stage looks to be the favorite.

GOP's retort
A statement from the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, had a “good riddance” tone to it, even though there is no doubt that the party is smarting over the high-profile rejection.

“Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not,” Mr. Steele said.
“Let’s be honest – Senator Specter didn’t leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.

“Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first.”

The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee also framed Specter’s decision as a self-centered one.

“Senator Specter’s decision today represents the height of political self-preservation,” said John Cornyn (R) of Texas in a statement. “While this presents a short-term disappointment, voters next year will have a clear choice to cast their ballots for a potentially unbridled Democrat supermajority versus the system of checks and balances that Americans deserve.”

Liberals not overjoyed

Reaction from the left, which has long sought to oust Specter from his seat, was tempered. And Specter’s opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation aimed at helping unions boost their membership, could make him a tough sell to a key Democratic constituency in Pennsylvania: organized labor. In his statement announcing his party switch, Specter said his position on EFCA, also known as “card check,” would not change.

“Even as we applaud Specter for switching parties, we shouldn't simply concede the primary,” writes liberal activist and columnist David Sirota on Huffington Post. “Indeed, there needs to be a contested and vigorous primary, especially since Specter's EFCA announcement means he will need pressure on his left, and especially since the primary winner in the increasingly blue state of Pennsylvania has a great shot of defeating someone like Toomey."

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