ABC News’ Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:
One of the newest members of the Democratic party, Sen. Arlen Specter of blue-trending Pennsylvania, appeared in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden this morning.
Specter, a Republican from 1966 until yesterday, recalled that as a Senator pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Obama approached him and said, “Tell me, Arlen, if a Jewish kid from Kansas can carry Pennsylvania, how can a black kid from Kansas carry Pennsylvania?”
"And I gave him some advice," Specter said to laughter, "and he became president of the United States of America."
"That’s how it worked," Mr. Obama said.
President Obama said he was "thrilled to have Arlen in the Democratic caucus."
With the likely arrival of Al Franken as a senator from Minnesota, Democrats will have a veto-proof majority in the Senate for the first time in 30 years, including two independent senators who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday said that the word "ebullient" properly described the reaction in the White House to Specter’s announcement.
"I know the decision Senator Specter made yesterday wasn’t easy," President Obama said today. "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 Specter’s career since the days he arrived in Washington.”
Mr. Obama said for this reason he doesn’t expect the Senator to agree with every decision that he makes, and suggested that Specter’s comfort in coming to the Democratic party reflects his own administration’s big tent approach.
“I don’t expect Arlen to be a rubber stamp," said the president. "I don’t expect any member of Congress to be a rubber stamp. In fact, I’d like to think that Arlen’s 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 we’ve begun to move this nation in the right direction.”
Specter’s decision appears to be grounded in basic math. The liberal Republican has been polling behind former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., among Keystone state Republicans. With more than 150,000 Republicans having re-registered as Democrats before the 2008 Pennsylvania Democratic primary, it was likely that many of Specter’s Republican supporters would have not been there to vote for him in the 2010 primary.
But with Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., and the president promising to clear the Democratic primary field for him if he switched parties, Specter’s chances of re-election significantly improved.
"I was unwilling to subject my 29-year record in the United States Senate to the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," Specter said today. "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."
Calling two-time cancer survivor Specter “one tough hombre," the president said that the former Philadelphia district attorney will have his “full support in the Democratic primary” and that he is “confident the Senator will get a 6th term in the Senate."
Vice President Biden, who has been lobbying Specter to become a Democrat since he almost lost the GOP primary to Toomey in 2004, said that "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, he’s been there for me every time things have been tough for me, and I hope I have been there for him."
Yesterday in Houston, as reported by the Houston Chronicle’s Alan Bernstein, Vice President Biden said he’s been Specter’s best friend in the senate for 33 years and has "been trying to remind Arlen that he is really Democrat… I have been working on that in earnest for the past four years and double time for the past 100 days."
Double-time increased to triple-time after Specter’s February vote for the stimulus package, which really aroused the wrath of conservatives. Since that vote, Vice President Biden met with Specter in person six times, and spoke with him on the phone an additional eight times.
Biden said this morning that "it gives me great pleasure, great pleasure, Mr. President, to now officially be in the same caucus with Arlen Specter. We’ve ridden the train for so many years, we’ve visited each other’s homes, our families,… it’s just a delight to have no separation." He welcomed "Arlen’s independence, integrity and piercing intellect" and called him "a man of immense personal courage and unmatched integrity."
Specter said that he has some different positions from the traditional position of the Democrats and will continue to exert his independence when necessary.
“I will not be an automatic 60th vote,” he said. But Specter twice repeated that he can be of assistance to the new administration.
"You have projected an administration that I feel very comfortable with," Specter said to president Obama.
The president said he was "grateful" that Specter was in the White House today. "And I’m also grateful that Joe Biden paid him a little attention on the train."
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller