April 28, 2009 in Nation/World

Specter says he’s switching from GOP to Dems

David Espo Associated Press
 
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WASHINGTON — Veteran Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania disclosed plans Tuesday to switch parties, a move intended to boost his chances of winning re-election next year that also will push Democrats within one seat of a 60-vote filibuster-resistant majority.

“I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans,” Specter said in a statement posted on a Web site devoted to Pennsylvania politics and confirmed by his office. Several Senate officials said a formal announcement was expected later in the day or Wednesday.

President Barack Obama called Specter almost immediately after he was informed of the decision to say the Democratic Party was “thrilled to have you,” according to a White House official.

Specter, 79 and in his fifth term, is one of a handful of Republican moderates remaining in Congress in a party now dominated by conservatives. Several officials said secret talks that preceded his decision reached into the White House, involving both Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, a longtime colleague in the Senate. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell as well as Democratic leaders in Congress also were involved, added the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details.

With Specter, Democrats would have 59 Senate seats. Democrat Al Franken is ahead in a marathon recount in Minnesota, and if he ultimately wins his race against Republican Norm Coleman, he would become the party’s 60th vote. That is the number needed to overcome a filibuster.

Specter faced an extraordinarily difficult re-election challenge in his home state in 2010, having first to confront a challenge from his right in the Republican primary before pivoting to a general election campaign against a Democrat in a state that has trended increasingly Democratic in recent elections.

He has publicly acknowledged in recent months that in order to win a sixth term, he would need the support of thousands of Pennsylvania Republicans who sided with Obama in last fall’s presidential election.

“I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” he said in the statement.

Asked by a reporter what he had to say to his constituents, Specter replied with a smile, “I don’t have to say anything to them. They said it to me.”

In Pennsylvania, the chairman of the state Republican Party, Rob Gleason, said that Specter should offer a refund to Republicans who have helped fatten his war chest, which totaled $5.8 million at the end of 2008. “He should give them the option,” Gleason said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement: “Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not. 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.”

Specter has long been one of the most durable politicians of either party in Pennsylvania. In recent years, he has battled Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system, but maintains a busy schedule that includes daily games of squash.

As one of the most senior Republicans in the Senate, Specter held powerful positions on the Judiciary and Appropriations committees. It was not clear how Democrats would calculate his seniority in assigning committee perches.

Specter has long been an independent Republican, and he proved it most recently when he became one of only three members of the GOP in Congress to vote for Obama’s economic stimulus legislation.

As recently as late winter, he was asked by a reporter why he had not taken Democrats up on past offers to switch parties.

“Because I am a Republican,” he said at the time.

“I welcome Sen. Specter and his moderate voice to our diverse caucus,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement.

A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because no announcement has yet been made, said at 10:25 a.m. EDT Tuesday President Barack Obama was handed a note while in the Oval Office during his daily economic briefing. The note said: “Specter is announcing he is changing parties.” At 10:32, Obama reached Specter by phone and told him “you have my full support” and that the Democratic Party is “thrilled to have you.”

© Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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