WASHINGTON – Sen. Arlen Specter provided a boost to President Barack Obama’s ambitious legislative agenda Tuesday by abandoning the Republican Party in the face of shifting political realities at home and an aggressive courtship by the White House and party leaders.
In an announcement that shocked colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Specter, of Pennsylvania, said he had become increasingly uncomfortable as a moderate in a party dominated by conservatives and would join the Democrats. He bluntly admitted that his decision was tied to his belief that he could not win re-election as a Republican next year.
Specter’s decision stunned Washington. With his vote – effective next week when he changes his registration – Democrats will control 59 Senate seats. Minnesota Democrat Al Franken appears likely to win a long-delayed judicial decision on his disputed election, and if he does he’ll become the 60th member of the Democrats’ Senate caucus.
Under the rules of the 100-member Senate, 60 votes are needed to shut off debate and move to a final vote on most legislation. Sixty votes in Democratic control could neutralize the Republican minority and ensure passage of Obama’s agenda.
A Democratic caucus of 60 votes still wouldn’t guarantee success, however. A few Democratic moderates sometimes break ranks – and Specter stressed that “I will not be an automatic 60th vote.” He’s long prided himself on his independence and positioned himself carefully as a swing-vote moderate.
But Specter’s defection is a reminder that the Republican Party continues to contract, especially outside the South, and that it appears increasingly less welcome to politicians and voters who do not consider themselves solidly conservative. Northeast Republicans have gone from an endangered species to a nearly extinct species. Republicans lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the past two elections.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party’s problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. That’s the lowest since the fall of 1983, when just 19 percent identified themselves as Republicans. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama’s opening months on the Republican Party. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily.
While some Republicans refused to view Specter’s move as an occasion for soul-searching, others in his party had a different take.
“I do think our party needs to make clear that centrists are welcome,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, now part of a lonely-hearts club of Republican moderates on the Hill. The November elections wiped out almost any trace of GOP centrists in the House, and only Collins, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, and perhaps the retiring Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, could be labeled moderates in the Senate.
“The Republican Party has been most successful when it’s adopted the big tent approach of Ronald Reagan. I think it’s important we embrace the philosophy of inclusion,” Collins said.
The news of Specter’s decision came on the eve of Obama’s 100th day in office, and in a phone call shortly after he was informed of the party switch, the president promised Specter his “full support” in attempting to secure another term in 2010.
Specter will retain seniority in the Senate as if he were elected as Democrat when he first took office in 1980. As a result, he will likely receive a plum subcommittee chairmanship on the Appropriations Committee in the future, and Specter indicated his goal is to one day serve as chairman of the full committee. He has already served as Judiciary Committee chairman, after conservatives put aside major ideological concerns to elevate him to that post in 2004, and until Tuesday he was remained the top Republican on that panel.
The decision was the culmination of a months-long effort by key Democrats to woo Specter, who began his political career as a Democrat in Philadelphia but has been a Republican for 43 years. Vice President Joe Biden, a regular Amtrak passenger with Specter as the two traveled to Wilmington and Philadelphia, respectively, when both served in the Senate, met with him face-to-face six times and spoke on the phone with him on eight more occasions since mid-February, aides said.
Specter’s political standing in Pennsylvania has become increasingly tenuous in recent years. His track record as a moderate, combined with the shrinking Republican base in the Keystone State, were likely to make a general election difficult, and former Republican congressman Pat Toomey, who came within two percentage points of defeating Specter in 2004, was leading in public polls by a double-digit margin heading into next April’s GOP primary.
Specter received his own final poll Friday, an assessment he called “bleak.” He ultimately chose to cast his lot with Democrats, he said at a news conference Tuesday, because “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”
A few Pennsylvania Democrats had been considering pursuit of the Senate nomination, but that potential opposition to Specter began to melt away Tuesday as the would-be contenders learned that he would have support from Obama and practically every leading Democrat in Washington.
Earlier this year, Specter outraged his Republican colleagues by supporting Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus program. Specter said at the time the plan – which he worked with two other Republicans to trim by more than $100 billion – was necessary to avert another Great Depression. Toomey jumped in the race after he cast the votes and Democrats soon stepped up their courtship efforts. “The stimulus vote was a schism,” Specter told reporters Tuesday.