It’s been a rocky first week for Sen. Arlen Specter and the Democratic caucus he switched parties to join.
The Senate’s newest Democrat was applauded at his first party lunch on Tuesday, where he described his differences with the GOP as irreconcilable.
But on Tuesday night, Senate majority leader Harry Reid proposed a resolution that stripped the Pennsylvania senator of his seniority, at least until a new Congress in 2011. The resolution passed the Senate by a voice vote.
It’s a steep fall in an institution where seniority counts – and, on personal terms, so do promises.
Instead of being in line to chair a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, as he had expected, the five-term senator drops to lowest-ranking Democrat on all but one of his five committees – the Special Committee on Aging, where he now ranks second to last.
In a statement Wednesday, Senator Specter said he wasn't surprised that the issue of subcommittee chairmanships would not be decided until the 2010 election.
“Senator Reid assured me that I would keep my committee assignments and that I would have the same seniority as if I had been elected as a Democrat in 1980,” he said. But he added, confirming grumblings from within the Democratic caucus: “Some members of the caucus have raised concerns about my seniority, so the caucus will vote on my seniority at the same time subcommittee chairmanships are confirmed after the 2010 election."
He also said, “I am confident my seniority will be maintained under the arrangement I worked out with Senator Reid."
Since changing sides, Specter hasn’t exactly voted in lock step with his new Democratic colleagues. In his first vote, he opposed adoption of the budget resolution for fiscal year 2010 – a blueprint for the majority party’s agenda. Last Thursday, he voted against party leaders on a measure that would have given bankruptcy judges the power to rewrite the terms of mortgages for primary homes.
But the vote that most concerns Democratic Party activists is Specter’s promise to vote against card check, a measure that makes it easier to organize trade unions without the requirement of a secret ballot vote.
“I’m not for union certification other than by a secret ballot ... but I do believe labor-law reform is long past overdue,” he said after Tuesday’s caucus lunch.
“I do not use the word ‘loyal,’ " he explained. “I said I expect to be supportive of the president’s agenda, and the president said he would seek my advice, especially when I disagree.”
“I will follow my conscience in how I vote,” he added.
When Specter announced his departure from the Republican caucus, he said that Reid had promised that he could keep his seniority.
When Reid helped negotiate the party switch of then-Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont in 2001, he gave up his own chairmanship of the Senate environment panel to Mr. Jeffords. The move gave Democrats control of the Senate.
But senior Senate Democrats said they were not consulted on a deal with Specter. Speaking on background, several said that it’s a deal they could not support – and that there was significant pushback from the caucus.
“I lost a lot of seniority when I returned to the Senate, and very frankly, I was very disappointed,” says Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, who describes his status as AWOL: At Work Without Leadership. Senator Lautenberg retired from his seat in 2000 but was then reelected in 2002.
“We welcome Senator Specter to the Democratic caucus and expect that that means allegiance to policy that ... we would get from traditional Democrats, like me,” he added.
Specter's plunge in seniority could also have an impact as he campaigns for reelection, says pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
"One of the things that Specter has said over and over is that seniority matters and I'm 7th in seniority in the Senate: I can do more than the new guy. Now, that argument will be challenged," he says.