Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, facing a tough reelection battle, announced today that he is switching from Republican to Democrat to seek reelection in 2010.
The stunning move could swing the balance of power in the Senate, giving Democrats the control of 59 seats. And if Al Franken, as expected, is seated in the Minnesota race, it would give Democrats a potentially filibuster-resistant majority of 60 seats and would help President Obama push through his agenda.
Specter said he has had growing differences with the Republican Party and when he was one of only three Republicans to support the president's $787 billion stimulus plan, the differences became irreconcilable.
"I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," Specter said in a statement on his campaign website.
"When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party. But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing."
"Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable," he added. "On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine 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 goes on to say that he won't be a party-line vote for Democrats, just as he wasn't for Republicans.
"While each member of the Senate caucuses with his Party, what each of us hopes to accomplish is distinct from his party affiliation," he said in his statement. "The American people do not care which Party solves the problems confronting our nation. And no Senator, no matter how loyal he is to his Party, should or would put party loyalty above his duty to the state and nation."
At 79 and in his fifth term, Specter is one of a handful of Republican moderates remaining in Congress in a party now dominated by conservatives. Several officials told the Associated Press that secret talks that preceded his decision reached into the White House, involving both Obama and Vice President Biden, a longtime colleague in the Senate. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, as well as Democratic leaders in Congress also were involved, added the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details.
At a news conference this afternoon, Specter reiterated his statement, saying that the "Republican party has moved farther and farther to the right" and he found himself "more at odds" with Republicans and more in tune with Democrats.
He acknowledged that his prospects for winning the Republican primary were "bleak," but also emphasized that there are many priorities he wants to push, including more money for medical research, immigration reform, and Middle East peace.
"This is a painful decision," he told reporters.
He said he understands the dismay of some supporters, but said he's dismayed by some of the criticism pointed his way. "Disappointment runs in both directions," he said.
Specter also declared that he will not give up his independent thinking.
"I will not be an automatic 60th vote," he said, citing his continuing opposition to a Democratic bill to make it easier for unions to organize.
The AFL-CIO's legislative director, Bill Samuel, said that the labor groups looks "forward to continuing an open and honest debate" on the bill.
"This is a new day for the Employee Free Choice Act and labor law reform," Samuel said in a statement. "Sen. Specter has said all along that he recognizes the need to reform our broken labor law system and we will continue to work with Congress to give workers back the freedom to form and join unions..."
Angry Republicans said Specter was just looking out for his own political future.
Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, told reporters that the "defection" threatens to leave Obama's power unchecked by Congress.
He also noted that a recent poll found a majority of Americans want Congress to provide a check on Obama's agenda
Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele also warned of what Specter's shift could mean.
"Well, It has a big impact," he said on CNN. "There's no doubt about it. I mean, certainly in the Senate, this puts the Democrats one step closer to 60 votes, which is a huge problem, not for the party per se but for the country. To give one party control absolutely without the appropriate checks and balance in the Senate is problematic."
Steele also said that Specter did not give him advance notice which is "another form of disrespect that I don’t countenance. I mean, you know, at least give me a call or give the party leadership a call and let us know, this is what I'm thinking, this is where I'm going, so that, you know, it can be repaired."
He portrayed Specter's decision as purely one of political survival. "Senator Specter had very few options at this point," Steele told CNN. "He had stepped on the toes of a lot of Republicans with his vote to on the stimulus bill, which was a core principle for us in terms of our views on economics.
"And you know, admittedly, a lot of Republicans weren't happy about the end of the Bush administration in terms of putting in motion this bailout process. But to have the senator confirm that, really, you know made it tough. And so, I think he saw that tough primary challenges coming ahead for him. I think he also saw a tough re-election in a general election."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine cast Specter's move as more evidence that Republicans have lost touch with Americans.
“Over nearly three decades in the United States Senate, Senator Specter has represented the people of Pennsylvania with honor, conviction, and an allegiance to deeply held principles that I know will continue to inform his decisions as a member of the Democratic caucus," Kaine said in a statement this afternoon. "Senator Specter courageously supported the President's economic recovery package while most Republicans played politics with our nation's economy. The Senator's willingness to set politics aside and be part of finding solutions to our nation's problems will find a welcome reception in the Democratic Party. Coming on the heels of Democrat Scott Murphy's victory in a Republican leaning congressional district in New York state, Senator Specter's decision is additional proof that the Republican Party is in serious trouble because it has lost touch with the American people and their desire for change which was so on display in November.
“As Senator Specter noted, the Republican Party has drifted far to the right and seems more interested in ideology, conflict and obstruction than in working constructively to address the nation's problems, and no longer appeals to moderates, including Senator Specter," Kaine added. "I commend Senator Specter on his decision to work with President Obama and Senate Democrats to help turn our economy around, create jobs and put the country back on the right track. We are thrilled to welcome Senator Specter into the Democratic fold and he can count on our full support."
Kaine later sent an appeal to 253,000 grassroots activists on the DNC email list in Pennsylvania asking them to welcome Specter, and sent similar requests via Facebook and Twitter.
"This is big," the DNC chairman wrote. "Senator Arlen Specter has just switched from the Republican Party. He's now a Democrat. A Republican for 43 years, Senator Specter has chosen to leave a party that he says has moved far to the right and join Senate Democrats as they work with President Obama to turn our economy and our country around."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Specter's move "very exciting, very exciting for the American people, because now we can get things done without explaining process."
"It shows that the country is going in a new direction," Pelosi said on CNN. "And we would hope to do that in a bipartisan way now with all of the diversity of thinking within our very independent-thinking party."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama talked to Specter this morning and told him he was "thrilled" to have him join the Democrats. Specter said the president has agreed to campaign for him in the Democratic primary.
Vice President Biden issued a statement late this afternoon: “I welcome my old friend to the Democratic Party. Senator Arlen Specter is a man of remarkable courage and integrity. I know he will remain a powerful and independent voice for Pennsylvania and the country.”
UPDATE: The White House announced tonight that Obama, Biden, and Specter will make a joint statement at the White House on Wednesday morning.
Senator John F. Kerry welcomed Specter to the Democratic caucus.
"This is a big moment. When Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party, he was the canary in the coal mine warning of Bush era ideological excess, and Senator Specter’s decision eight years later signals its tipping point. This is now officially a Republican Party where moderates need not apply, and a Democratic Party under President Obama that welcomes all perspectives and is determined to find consensus to move America forward," Kerry said in a statement.
“Arlen Specter is guts and grit personified, and he remains as independent as ever. He’s always been a thoughtful voice on everything from science and research to twenty first century infrastructure, and I look forward to working with him in our Caucus.”
Americans United for Change, a labor-liberal coalition that is helping push Obama's agenda, also enthusiastically greeted Specter.
“Senator Specter’s announcement today ought to send a piercing message to the Limbaugh-Led Party of No that doing nothing but stand in the way of President Obama’s efforts to turn the economy around is serving only to further dwindle their numbers," the group's acting executive director, Tom McMahon, said in a statement. "Why? Because amid the worst economic crisis in generations, the American people want positive and constructive solutions from their representatives – not bitter “revenge” politics and more of same failed polices of the past. Senator Specter understands that. That’s why, despite the grumbling from his Republican colleagues, he put middle-class Pennsylvania families first and supported the President’s jobs and economic recovery plan.”
But some Pennsylvania Democrats aren't fully embracing their new colleague.
Representative Joe Sestak, who was preparing to run for the Senate nomination, didn't say he's giving up those plans now and said repeatedly that he wants to know what principles and goals Specter is running for, not what he is against.
"I'm going to have to wait," Sestak said on MSNBC. "Is that the type of individual we want to move us forward."
April 28, 2009
I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.
Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.
When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party. But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing.
Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.
I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.
I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election 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 especially Senators McConnell and Cornyn for their forbearance.
I am not making this decision because there are no important and interesting opportunities outside the Senate. I take on this complicated run for re-election because I am deeply concerned about the future of our country and I believe I have a significant contribution to make on many of the key issues of the day, especially medical research. NIH funding has saved or lengthened thousands of lives, including mine, and much more needs to be done. And my seniority is very important to continue to bring important projects vital to Pennsylvania’s economy.
I am taking this action now because there are fewer than thirteen months to the 2010 Pennsylvania Primary and there is much to be done in preparation for that election. Upon request, I will return campaign contributions contributed during this cycle.
While each member of the Senate caucuses with his Party, what each of us hopes to accomplish is distinct from his party affiliation. The American people do not care which Party solves the problems confronting our nation. And no Senator, no matter how loyal he is to his Party, should or would put party loyalty above his duty to the state and nation.
My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords’ switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.
Whatever my party affiliation, I will continue to be guided by President Kennedy’s statement that sometimes Party asks too much. When it does, I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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.