Since declaring himself a Democrat last Tuesday, Specter has defied Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the White House on virtually everything that’s come down the pike: the budget, mortgage reform, the Al Franken-Norm Coleman race, even President Barack Obama’s appointment of Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
All while quibbling over whether he said he’d be a “loyal Democrat” — and insisting that he had an “entitlement” to transfer his Senate seniority from one side of the aisle to the other.
The blowback came Tuesday night: On a voice vote, the Senate voted to strip Specter of his 29 years of seniority, effectively transforming him in a blink-and-you-missed-it-moment from one of the most senior senators in the body to a lowly freshman on most committees.
"There were concerns about his actions," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, which sets committee assignments.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Specter said that Reid had promised him that he could transfer his seniority to the Democratic Party.
“Sen. 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,” Specter said. “It was understood that the issue of subcommittee chairmanships would not be decided until after the 2010 election. 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. I am confident my seniority will be maintained under the arrangement I worked out with Sen. Reid.”
Specter said in the statement that he would “continue to be a staunch and effective advocate for Pennsylvania¹s and the nation's priorities.” But as early as Tuesday afternoon, the Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat seemed to know that he’d be doing that from something akin to freshman status.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, just selected to take Specter's former spot as the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, asked Specter on Tuesday where he would be sitting during committee proceedings.
"At the end of the other side of the aisle," a dejected Specter responded, according to a first-hand account of the conversation.
Democratic staffers say Reid may have tolerated Specter’s early splits with the party if he hadn’t simultaneously been so vocal in claiming he was entitled to keep his seniority and leapfrog over veteran Democrats on some of the Senate’s most powerful committees.
Specter’s claim that he’d been promised as much sparked an in-house rebellion among longtime Democratic foot soldiers, including Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of an Appropriations subcommittee who would have been passed over by the more senior Specter, said it would have been an unfair move.
"When you get to be a chairman, you really have some control of that area, and that's what makes it interesting for me," Feinstein told POLITICO. "Somebody comes in on top — then everybody gets bumped. Then somebody gets bumped from the committee. That's a very hard thing if you've got 14 years having been on that committee. Obviously you'd like to stay where you are. I understand how people feel about it."
Feinstein said she's heard other members complain about Specter keeping his seniority, too. "It's a concern, and I think Sen. Specter will understand that."
By Tuesay night, Reid had no option but to strip Specter of his seniority, staffers with knowledge of the situation say. Reid preserved a vestige of his original promise to Specter by vowing to revisit the matter after the 2010 midterms.
"Whenever you have a party switch like this, there has to be give and take, negotiation, and I think that's what happened here,” said Democrat Bob Casey, Pennsylvania’s other senator.
“I think the reality is between now and then is — is he on the team or not?” a senior Democratic aide said Wednesday. “If he’s instrumental in getting health care done, I imagine his position in the caucus after 2010 will be substantially strengthened.”
But that’s assuming that Specter is reelected — or even survives a Democratic primary.
Republicans say the loss of seniority robs Specter of a key argument in a general election race against former Republican Rep. Pat Toomey or perhaps former Gov. Tom Ridge — that Specter’s seniority and experience will allow him to deliver more goodies to the Keystone State.
"It's kind of hard to make the argument that you should be returned to the Senate because of your clout when you're the junior most senator on every committee," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "I imagine that will be the subject of some discussion on the campaign."
Julian Zelizer, a political science expert at Princeton University, said the seniority move will be even more damaging in a primary, allowing an opponent — perhaps Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak — to dismiss arguments that Specter has more clout.
“This is a body blow for Pennsylvania,” Zelizer said. “It certainly is not a great deal for Specter, who will look like diminished figure in the primaries as a result.”
One more problem for Specter: Liberal groups are turning up the volume on calls for a competitive Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania. "Our elected officials should have to compete for their seats, and Arlen Specter is no exception," said Arshad Hasan, executive director of Democracy for America, a 725,000-member political action committee.
If Specter were to keep his seat and retain his seniority, he would leapfrog nearly the entire Democratic caucus. He’d be tied for seventh in seniority with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), and he’d be line to fight for coveted subcommittee chairmanships on the powerful Appropriations Committee, potentially chair the Environment and Public Works Committee and take the reins of the Judiciary Committee if Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), who is more senior, steps aside.
On Wednesday, Leahy told reporters he had “no idea” Specter would lose his seniority, adding, "You should talk to Sen. Reid; it was his decision."
Asked if he was fine with Specter losing his seniority, Leahy said: "I'm just glad Sen. Specter is on the committee. He's a very valued senator; we have a 40-year friendship, the two of us. I'm delighted he's there."
Other Democrats, including Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) all said they were kept in the dark about Reid’s decision. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he was in the loop but referred all questions to the leader.
Members are fiercely territorial and use their much-prized committee positions to shower their constituents with legislative gold. They balked at the possibility of being replaced by someone who simply switched parties to preserve his political career. In interviews with POLITICO, several Democrats said they were in no mood to give up their gavels either this Congress or next — and several expressed their views directly to Reid over the past several days.
In the end, aides, it was a no-brainer to strip Specter of his senioity: Specter is now a Democrat and has no choice but to try to ingratiate himself with the Democratic Caucus if he wants to retain his seniority after this Congress.
Specter tried to make some amends with members of his new party Tuesday. After word leaked out that he’d told The New York Times that the courts in Minnesota should “do justice” and name Republican Norm Coleman the winner over Democrat Al Franken, Specter backpedaled, telling CQ that he had “conclusively misspoke” in “the swirl of moving from one caucus to another.”
Victoria McGrane, Martin Kady II and Michael Falcone contributed to this report.