Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter shook the capital's political order Tuesday by deciding to leave the Republican Party and join the Democrats, putting his new party within reach of 60 votes and a filibuster-proof Senate.
Specter, 79, who through five Senate terms has been a moderate in an increasingly conservative Republican Party, used language typically cited in divorce cases, saying "irreconcilable differences" had developed with the GOP on policy. He also acknowledged that his statewide polls showed his prospects of winning the Republican nomination next year over a conservative challenger were "bleak."
Now, he said, he has promises from two leading Democrats — President Obama and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell — to back his candidacy and help him raise money as he seeks the Democratic nomination.
The party switch was a gift to Obama on the eve of his 100th day in office, and will make it easier for Democrats to command the 60 votes needed to overcome a parliamentary tactic that Republicans can use to block action in the Senate. It also underscored the ideological wrangling within the GOP, still staggering after losing the White House and seats in the House and Senate in the November elections.
"Arlen Specter likes to make the big statement; he likes to make the big splash," says Larry Ceisler, a Democratic consultant in Pennsylvania who is close to Specter's son, Shanin. "I think what he's saying here is not only does he want to continue in the Senate … (but also) the Republican Party has a big problem, an identity crisis."
Specter was wooed toward the Democratic Party by, among others, Vice President Biden, a former Delaware senator. For years, the two rode the Amtrak train between Washington, D.C., and their hometowns. Both had battled life-threatening illnesses — cancer for Specter, a brain aneurysm for Biden — while in the Senate. They served together for years on the Judiciary Committee, which each had chaired.
Biden, who had publicly urged Specter to join the Democrats last month, remained in close touch with him this year as he lobbied for the administration's economic stimulus package, and the two had conferred repeatedly in recent weeks.
"The vice president was not shy about suggesting to Arlen that Arlen's political life going forward would be a lot less complicated if he was running for re-election as a Democrat," says Democrat Tom Carper, a former Delaware senator close to Biden.
Obama phoned Specter on Tuesday morning, minutes after finding out that he was switching parties, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. Obama told Specter that Democrats were "thrilled to have him."
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the Republican Senate campaign committee, dismissed Specter's decision as "the height of political self-preservation" and said Republicans would support former congressman Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Senate race.
Specter's switch doesn't mean the Democrats can count on him to vote along party lines, any more than the Republicans could. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote," Specter declared, noting in particular his opposition to a hard-fought bill to make it easier for labor unions to organize. Ceisler predicted the Pennsylvania senator would give Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid the same "agita" or indigestion that he regularly gave Republican leader Mitch McConnell.