Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has decided to switch parties and become a Democrat, stunning his GOP colleagues in the Senate while pushing Democrats and President Barack Obama one step closer to unfettered power in Washington.
Specter will be the 59th Democratic senator, and if Al Franken eventually pulls out his Senate race in Minnesota, Democrats will have a filibuster-resistant 60-vote majority in the Senate, something the party could only have dreamed of at this time last year.
Specter's party switch could have a dramatic effect on some of the most challenging issues before the Senate, changing the dynamic on health care reform, labor union policy and economic policy, and it may even tilt the global warming debate back toward the Democrats. The impact could extend to the Supreme Court, where Specter — a senior member of the Judiciary Committee — could be a key ally if the president makes a Supreme Court justice pick in the future.
But in an afternoon press conference, Specter warned not to overstate his party switch.
“I will not be an automatic 60th vote,” Specter said. “I would illustrate that with my position on employee choice, also known as card check. I think it’s a bad deal and I’m opposed to it. I will not vote to impose cloture. … If the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not vote with them.
Specter had been in secret talks with Senate Democratic leaders for months, according to Senate sources, but his final move to become a Democrat came after a recent poll showed him badly losing a Pennsylvania Republican primary next year. Specter talked with Obama Tuesday morning, and the president said he was "thrilled" to have Specter joining the Democratic side of the aisle. According to White House aides, Obama was handed a note by an aide that read: "Specter is announcing he is changing parties."
Specter said Tuesday afternoon that Obama told him he would campaign for him in Pennsylvania.
In a statement, Specter said he does not want to be "judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate." Specter was mobbed by reporters Tuesday and joked, "I don't think Lee Harvey Oswald had this big a crowd trailing him."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), still stymied by filibusters on key issues, may have been one of the happiest people in Washington on Tuesday.
“Sen. Specter and I have had a long dialogue about his place in an evolving Republican Party. We have not always agreed on every issue, but Sen. 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,” Reid said. “I welcome Sen. Specter and his moderate voice to our diverse caucus and to continuing our open and honest debate about the best way to make life better for the American people.”
Republicans in the Senate were in disarray on Tuesday afternoon, reacting with surprise, anger and cynicism. Specter’s abandonment of the Republican Party is as significant as any electoral blow the party has experienced over the past two election cycles.
"I'm stunned ... I'm very surprised. I had no idea this was coming," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "I'm stunned."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who’s in charge of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Specter’s move was a pure political play.
“I think it's about Sen. Specter's sense of political self-preservation," said Cornyn said. “[Specter] knew he'd have a hard time winning the Republican primary. He wasn't ready to quit, so he decided to quit [the party]. I think it's as simple as that."
But Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a fellow moderate, didn't seem surprised. On the national level, she says, "you haven't certainly heard warm encouraging words of how [the GOP] views moderates.Either you are with us or against us."
Sen. Pat Leahy reacts to Specter’s decision:
“Ultimately we're heading to having the smallest political tent in history they way things are unfolding,” Snowe said. “We should have learned from the 2006 election, which I was a party of. I happened to win with 74 percent of the vote in a blue-collar state, but no one asked me, 'How did you do it?' Seems to me that would have been the first question that would have come from the Republican Party to find out so we could avoid further losses."
Republican Senate leaders Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona were in an emergency meeting in the Capitol Tuesday afternoon discussing the party switch, which is a devastating blow to a party barely hanging on to a 41-vote minority in the Senate. Specter has long been a moderate Republican and a thorn in his party's side, but his move to switch parties was a surprising maneuver on many fronts.
“Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. “Let’s be honest: Sen. 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.”
A source close to the RNC said that Steele and Specter had a cordial meeting after Steele seemed to suggest in a TV interview that he was open to withholding funds from Specter and the two other GOP senators who supported the stimulus bill. But Steele never urged him to stay in the party or even discussed a party-switch with him. That was being done, the RNC believed, by McConnell and Cornyn.
Through emissaries, the RNC learned that Specter wanted them to try to push conservative challenger Pat Toomey out of the Pennsylvania GOP primary.
"They would've like it if the RNC did what the NRSC did," said this source, alluding to the Senate campaign committee's statement of support for Specter.
"Sen. Specter is all about one thing: keeping the word 'senator' in front of his name," said Curt Anderson, a top adviser to Steele. "Anyone who believes his lame excuse that this switch is about 'philosophy' is completely naive. Specter's philosophy is this: 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.'"
Specter told Reid yesterday afternoon that he was switching parties, and Democrats on Tuesday were overjoyed.
I know what Jim Jeffords [a Vermont Republican who switched parties] went through," said Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.). "In my conversation with Sen. Specter, I think he went through much the same. It wasn't so much him leaving the Republican Party as the Republican Party leaving him."
Asked his reaction in an online chat with POLITICO, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said: “I spoke with Arlen this morning, and he explained his reasoning to me. I told him I was deeply disappointed that he felt he had to do it. It is a huge blow to the Republicans' ability to moderate any of Obama's very liberal proposals. I can only hope that Arlen will be as independent as a Democrat as he has been as a Republican.”
The move stands to put the White House's agenda on a fast track — and to renew hopes among organized labor for the Employee Free Choice Act.
The move also raises the stakes for the resolution of the Minnesota Senate race and may tempt Republicans to drag that fight on further.
Here's a lengthier version of Specter's statement:
"On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania," Specter said in a staement. "I have decided to run for reelection in 2010 in the Democratic primary. I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for reelection determined in a general election. I deeply regret that I will be disappointing many friends and supporters. I can understand their disappointment. I am also disappointed that so many in the party I have worked for for more than four decades do not want me to be their candidate. It is very painful on both sides. I thank specially Sens. McConnell and Cornyn for their forbearance."
One long time Pennsylvania political observer, radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, put the blame on the Republican party.
"It's an awfully sad day for the Republican party," Smerconish told POLITICO. "The party needs to get the message: Grow the tent. He's not the guy they should be excoriating and calling a [Republican in Name Only]."
It’s not clear yet whether the field will clear on the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, but Senate Democrats are likely to make sure Specter has no challengers in that primary next year.
Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), who doubles as the Democratic chairman for the city of Philadelphia, said he had Specter have talked over the years about him switching parties but he didn’t know of the senator decision until Specter called him this morning to tell him. “He will absolutely be a formidable candidate,” Brady said.
But even though Specter has the blessing of the Democratic leadership in switching parties, not every Democrat is ready to support his re-election back home.
Former Constitution Center CEO Joe Torsella, who was the only announced Democrat in the race, said that he would be remaining in the Democratic primary against Specter for now.
"I decided to run for the United States Senate from Pennsylvania for one simple reason: I believe we need new leadership, new ideas, and new approaches in Washington. It’s become obvious that the old ways of doing business might have worked for the special interests, but they haven’t worked for the rest of us,” Torsella said in a statement.
"Nothing about today’s news regarding Senator Specter changes that, or my intention to run for the Democratic nomination to the Senate in 2010 - an election that is still a full year away."
Some Republicans said they saw all this coming.
"As Republicans, we got a problem,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “You don't have to be a rocket scientist. When you are behind 20 points, if you want to stay in politics, you have to switch parties."
Lisa Lerer, Josh Kraushaar, Jonathan Martin and David Rogers contributed to this story.