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Senator Specter bolts GOP

Cites changing views, campaign Democrats could get supermajority

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By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / April 29, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Senator Arlen Specter, a liberal Pennsylvania Republican who had long chafed against his party's rightward drift, announced yesterday that he would switch allegiances and join the Democrats to strengthen his prospects for reelection next year.

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"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record as a United States senator decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," Specter said, recounting the conservative resistance he saw in polls and on a recent tour of the state. "I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party."

While Specter said his decision was motivated by changing conditions in Pennsylvania, it thrummed with national resonance. As President Obama prepared to mark his 100th day in office today, Obama's allies portrayed Specter's sudden switch as a ratification of the new president's agenda and further evidence of his opposition's irrelevance.

"This is a real lift for the Democrats, because it's not simply we have another vote," said Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat. "It's a confirmation that we're right about where we want to take America."

While the move would create what is likely to be the Senate's 60th Democratic vote, potentially enough to withstand Republican filibusters, it would not necessarily change the chamber's legislative dynamics. Democratic successes at expanding their caucus have made it less unified ideologically, and Specter - one of only three Republicans in Congress to back Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus bill - said he expected to defy his new party as readily as he did his old one.

"I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own approach to individual issues," Specter said, reaffirming his opposition to a Democratic bill that would make it easier for labor unions to organize. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote."

Still, it would be the first time in 30 years that a single party controls the White House, the House of Representatives, and a supermajority in the Senate, giving Democrats a strong hand to enact Obama's robust agenda of changes to healthcare and energy policy. (Democrats are waiting to seat Al Franken, the apparent winner of a contested Minnesota Senate race still being litigated.)

Senator Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republicans' shrinking minority, warned that Specter's "defection" threatens to give Obama unrestrained power. The issue, McConnell said, is whether "our people want the majority party to have whatever it wants, without restraint, without a check or balance."

Obama and Democratic leaders quickly embraced Specter, who has vexed them on a range of issues including Supreme Court appointments but who could help them on a proposed healthcare overhaul, among other issues. Obama, Specter, and Vice President Joe Biden plan to make a joint statement at the White House this morning.

Specter smiled as he declared that Obama had promised to campaign and raise money on his behalf and that Senate majority leader Harry Reid intended to recognize the seniority Specter has accrued as a Republican, which could eventually make him chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Proclaiming himself "full of vim, vigor, and vitality" at a Capitol press conference, Specter, a 79-year-old lymphoma survivor, said he intended to formally change his party registration shortly and seek a sixth term under the new party banner. In the general election, he probably will again face former Representative Pat Toomey, who nearly beat Specter for the 2004 Republican nomination and led the incumbent by significant margins in 2010 primary polls.

"Specter is the kind of person that waits things out," said Maurice Floyd, a Philadelphia Democratic consultant who has worked for Specter. "He's always been the kind of guy that realizes - when it comes to a certain point - that if he has to change course he'll do it."

Specter said that he had been negotiating with Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to host a Washington event at which Democratic leaders would formally endorse his reelection. The party's only significant entrant in the race, former Philadelphia deputy mayor Joe Torsella, said yesterday he had no plans to withdraw.

While Rendell and Biden, both longtime friends, have encouraged Specter in both public and private to switch, one colleague who had raised the issue to Specter concluded that such lobbying had little effect on the famously diffident and occasionally prickly legislator.

"It has to come from that person," said Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. "If it's pushed by our side, we might not have had this result."

Democrats had long dreamed of reconverting Specter, who was a member of their party before enlisting as a Republican to mount an insurgent challenge to the Philadelphia Democratic machine during a 1965 campaign for district attorney. "I didn't leave the Democratic Party," Specter repeated to throngs from a flatbed truck throughout that race. "The party left me."

He subsequently lost races for mayor, senator, and governor before his election in 1980. Since then, Specter - who supports abortion rights, favors gun control, and has often allied with unions - has had a shaky relationship with right-wing activists within his party. In 1996, he mounted a quixotic campaign for the presidency focused on pushing back against the rising influence of religious conservatives in Republican politics.

Specter said yesterday that his decision was driven by a combination of greater ideological solidarity with Democrats and the pragmatic consideration that he would have trouble holding on to his seat in the current environment. Last year, thousands of the suburban centrists who make up Specter's base switched their registrations so that they could participate in the competitive Democratic presidential primary.

"I have to make a calculation as to whether it's possible - realistic - to fight for the moderate wing of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania," said Specter. "And I do not think it's realistic. It's bleak."

Specter said his switch would become official Tuesday, when he expected to sit with the Democrats during the parties' weekly caucus luncheons.

Yesterday, he ate with the Republicans, as he has for 28 years, and said his peers were "polite" when he explained his change of loyalty.

"Senator [Thad] Cochran said at least he wouldn't have to go to Erie any more to campaign for me," Specter recounted, referring to a Mississippi Republican and a dismal lakeside city in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania.