Kicking off his 100th day in office, President Obama this morning formally welcomed the newest Democrat and his newest potential ally -- Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is deserting the GOP
ďIím thrilled to have Arlen in the Democratic caucus. I have told that he will have my full support in the Democratic primary,Ē Obama said in a joint White House appearance with Specter and Vice President Joe Biden.
But the president also made clear that he doesn't expect Specter to support him down the line, though he said he hopes they can work together in areas where they do agree, including healthcare and education.
ďI donít expect Arlen to be a rubber stamp. I donít expect any member of Congress to be a rubber stamp,Ē Obama said, according to the press pool report.
Specter said he feels ďvery comfortable" with the Obama administration and declared, ďI do think, Mr. President, that I can be of assistance.Ē
But he also reiterated that he will not always vote with Obama and Democrats. Once Al Franken is seated in the contested Minnesota race, Specter would be the 60th Democratic vote -- potentially enough to overcome Republican filibusters in the Senate -- and push through Obama's agenda -- if all the Democrats fall in line.
ďAs I said yesterday, I will not be an automatic 60th vote,Ē Specter said, adding that there are areas where he disagrees with the traditional Democratic position but declining to name them.
Indeed, this afternoon, he voted against the budget blueprint pushed by Obama and Democratic leaders -- just as he did earlier this month when he was still a Republican.
Obama said he believes that Specterís decision shows that his administration is open to different points of view and that he's "eager to receive his counsel and advice, especially when he disagrees.Ē
ďI know that the decision that Senator Specter made yesterday wasnít easy," the president added. "....It required courage. But I also know that it reflects an independence that has been a hallmark of Arlen Specterís career since the days he arrived in Washington. He has never been in the Senate to fight for any particular party but for the men and women of Pennsylvania who sent him here."
Biden, who has shared many a train ride with Specter to Washington, acknowledged that contrarian streak in his remarks.
ďAnyone who thinks that Arlen is going to cash in his independence politically has another thing coming,Ē Biden said.
(Their full remarks are below.)
Republicans, meanwhile, are getting angrier by Specter's sudden switch.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele sent a fund-raising missive to supporters early today accusing Specter of putting "his loyalty to his own political career above his duty to his state and nation" and warning that his "defection to the Democrat Party puts the Democrats in an almost unstoppable position to pass Obama's destructive agenda of income redistribution, health care nationalization, and a massive expansion of entitlements.
"Arlen Specter handed Barack Obama and his band of radical leftists nearly absolute power in the United States Senate. In leaving the Republican Party--and joining the Democrats--he absolutely undercut Republicans' efforts to slow down Obama's radical agenda through the threat of filibuster," Steele added.
"Facing defeat in Pennsylvania's 2010 Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record, and an end to his 30 year career in the U.S. Senate, he has peddled his services--and his vote--to the leftist Obama Democrats who aim to remake America with their leftist plan."
But other Republicans argue that Specter's switch shows deep problems with their party.
In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine -- who joined Specter and Susan Collins of Maine as the only Republicans to vote for Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package -- said the GOP is becoming too unforgiving and unfriendly to moderates.
"It is true that being a Republican moderate sometimes feels like being a cast member of 'Survivor' ó you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling that youíre no longer welcome in the tribe. But it is truly a dangerous signal that a Republican senator of nearly three decades no longer felt able to remain in the party," she wrote.
Snowe added, "I have said that, without question, we cannot prevail as a party without conservatives. But it is equally certain we cannot prevail in the future without moderates....We canít continue to fold our philosophical tent into an umbrella under which only a select few are worthy to stand. Rather, we should view an expansion of diversity within the party as a triumph that will broaden our appeal. That is the political road map we must follow to victory."
UPDATE: In another, somewhat curious, response to Specter's move, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched automated calls today to Pennsylvania Democrats highlighting Specter's strong support for former President Bush and his promise not to toe the Democratic party line.
"Iím here to say it as plainly as I can, Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate," Bush is heard saying on the call. "I can count on this man - see that's important. Heís a firm ally when it matters most. Iím proud to tell you I think heís earned another term as the United States Senator."
The committee, which tries to elect Republicans to the Senate, also launched a website cataloguing reasons why Democrats might not want to support Specter in the primary next year.
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
THE VICE PRESIDENT,
AND SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Mr. President, as we used to say in the Senate, I hope youíll excuse a point of personal privilege here. I -- Arlen Specter has been my friend and my confidant and my partner, and I his partner, in scores and scores of major, major pieces of legislation and issues for a long time. And beyond that, Mr. President, heís been there for me every time things have been tough for me, and I hope I have been there for him.
And it gives me great pleasure, great pleasure, Mr. President, to now officially be in the same caucus with Arlen Specter. Weíve ridden the train for so many years, weíve visited each otherís homes, our families, that it is -- itís just, as, again, a point of personal privilege, itís just a delight to have no separation.
Mr. President, Iím even more pleased that Arlenís independence, integrity and piercing intellect will now be sitting in a Democratic caucus. I think it will be a real added value. Anyone who thinks that Arlen is going to cash in his independence politically has another thing coming, but I think our caucus and our party will be better for it, and as a consequence, I think weíll be able to serve the country even better than we have.
And the people of Pennsylvania are going to continue to benefit from his fierce -- and I emphasize and I need not tell you, Mr. President -- his fierce commitment to the people of Pennsylvania and to this country.
So, Mr. President, I am pleased to introduce a man of immense personal courage and unmatched integrity, my friend, Arlen Specter.
SENATOR SPECTER: Thank you.
Thank you, Mr. Vice President, and thank you, Mr. President, for your support and encouragement.
I was unwilling to subject my 29-year record in the United States Senate to the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate, but I am pleased to run in the primary on the Democratic ticket and am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers in a general election.
I have not represented the Republican Party; I have represented the people of Pennsylvania. And I will continue to do just that. As I said yesterday, I will not be an automatic 60th vote. There have been positions, which I talked about yesterday and will not re-enumerate, where I stand in a different position from the traditional position of the Democrats, and I will continue that independence.
I do think, Mr. President, that I can be of assistance. You have projected an administration that I feel very comfortable with. I felt comfortable, frankly, in talking to my Republican colleagues yesterday, which I did, to have them hear from me personally what my thinking was and my reasons for what I was undertaking to do. And that wasnít an easy conversation, but I felt comfortable with it.
And I think I can be of assistance to you, Mr. President, in my views on centrist government. There are a lot of big issues which weíre tackling now that Iíve been deeply involved in -- issues which go beyond my own personal interests. And I do want to serve in a sixth term; I make no bones about that. But Iíve been deeply involved in health care reform, and global warming, climate control, and immigration, and will continue to be so. And I am mindful of the deficit and the national debt as we balance a lot of competing interests.
One matter that especially concerns me is medical research. I think it is scandalous that we have not done more to harness the scientific know-how in America, with the gross national product we have, to do more to cure the maladies of the world. And Iíve taken the lead with Senator Tom Harkin on a bipartisan basis in increasing NIH funding, and I think that has saved or prolonged lives, including mine. And thatís a big reason why Iím so anxious to stay in the Senate and carry that work forward.
But most of all, Iím appreciative of what Senator Biden has said. We have talked over every problem under the sun and under the moon. Weíve ridden that train together again and again, and weíve supported that train. Weíve helped finance it. And I appreciate what you have in the stimulus package, Mr. President.
When I talked to the President yesterday, I said, I havenít seen you in the elevator lately. His office used to be right down the hall from mine on the 7th floor of the Hart Building, and he hadnít come back lately, so I said I was calling him up just to -- just to chit-chat. And I got to know the President to some extent in the Senate -- I talked to him already, but thatís -- Joe taught me how to do that.
Just one personal comment. The President approached me when he was Senator Obama, before the Democratic primary. And he said, ďTell me, Arlen, if a Jewish kid from Kansas can carry Pennsylvania, how can a black kid from Kansas carry Pennsylvania?Ē And I gave him some advice, and he became -- (laughter) -- he became President of the United States of America.
THE PRESIDENT: Thatís how it worked. Thank you so much, Arlen. Thank you.
Well, let me start off by just saying Iím thrilled to have Arlen in the Democratic caucus. I have told him that he will have my full support in the Democratic primary. Joe Biden has said the same thing. We are confident that Arlen Specter is going to get a 6th term in the Senate and the American people are going to be better off for it....
Today I have the honor of standing next to the newest Democrat from the state of Pennsylvania. I know the decision Senator Specter made yesterday wasnít easy. It required long and careful consideration, and it required courage. But I know that it also reflects an independence that has been the hallmark of Arlen Specterís career since the days he arrived in Washington. He has never been in the Senate to fight for any particular party, but rather for the men and women of Pennsylvania who sent him here.
This is also why I donít expect that Senator Specter will agree with every decision I make and support every single one of those policies. I donít accept -- I donít expect Arlen to be a rubber stamp. I donít expect any member of Congress to be a rubber stamp. In fact, Iíd like to think that Arlenís decision reflects a recognition that this administration is open to many different ideas and many different points of view; that we seek cooperation and common ground; and that in these 100 days weíve begun to move this nation in the right direction.
As I told Senator Specter yesterday, he has my full support, my full commitment to work with him on those areas where we do agree -- areas like health care, education, expanding Americaís manufacturing base, and medical research. I look forward to working with the Senator on these and other issues in the coming weeks and months. Iím eager to receive his counsel and advice, especially when he disagrees. And I have great respect and admiration for the decision that he has made.
Senator Specter often tells the story about his father, Harry Specter, who came to this country from Russia nearly a century ago. He fought in World War I and was seriously wounded in action. Later, he became one of the thousands of veterans who never received the bonus that our government promised in return for the brave service that they had rendered to our nation. Many of these veterans would later march on Washington because of that broken promise, and some were shot at by their own government because they were voicing dissent.
Arlen Specter has said that his career in public service has been one long journey to get his fatherís bonus. And until he does, he plans to keep on running. Itís a metaphor thatís particularly apt today as he begins the next chapter in his proud effort to fight for all those men and women who need and deserve a voice in Washington.
And so Iím grateful that he is here. And Iím also grateful that Joe Biden paid him a little attention on the train. (Laughter.) Thank you much, everybody.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.