Specter joining Dems; shifts Senate

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.

Even so, Specter's switch gives him visibility and clout and "strengthens the hand of mainstream, pragmatic Democrats," says Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. That could be especially important as Congress debates health care this summer. The change also makes it easier for Democrats to portray the GOP as ideologically narrow and rigid.

Democrats now can count 59 votes in their Senate caucus. Democrat Al Franken, ahead in Minnesota's Senate recount, would give the party 60 votes if he survives court challenges.

As a minority in the House and without the votes to filibuster the Senate, Republicans would find it harder to block Democratic initiatives or even be heard.

Senate GOP leader McConnell of Kentucky said the shift in power posed "a threat to the country" and questioned whether "our people want the majority party to have whatever it wants, without restraint."

"The loss of Specter is small," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "The loss of that 41st seat is huge."

'At odds' with GOP philosophy

At a jammed news conference on Capitol Hill, Specter was alternately defiant and jovial, ripping into conservative groups that had bedeviled him and joking with reporters. He talked with passion about his desire to continue to seek funding for medical research, particularly for the National Institutes of Health.

Democrats had been urging him to switch sides for five years, he said, but he described his vote in February for the administration's $787 billion stimulus package as creating a new "schism" with the GOP. He was one of three Republican senators to support it, earning criticism from radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives.

Last Friday, Specter said he saw private campaign polls that showed him likely to lose the Republican nomination next year to Toomey, who came close to beating him in the 2004 primary and then led the conservative Club for Growth. Specter said he was "not prepared" to see his Senate career end by the judgment of "that jury," describing the GOP primary vote as dominated by hard-line conservatives.

"I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party," he said. Over the weekend, he decided to switch sides, first informing Reid and then McConnell about 6 p.m. Monday.

Specter has long been a survivor, facing near-death experiences in his personal health and his political career. Born in Wichita to Russian Jewish emigres, he was a Democrat until he weighed a race for district attorney in Philadelphia. When he switched to the GOP, it was "almost like changing my religion," he said in his biography, Passion for Truth.

Known for political independence and a prosecutorial style, he did not always win re-election easily. Even so, he is the state's longest-serving senator in history.

At midday Tuesday, when the news had broken, Specter walked through a crowd of reporters to the weekly luncheon of Republican senators, where he stayed for about 10 minutes.

Specter described the session as polite. "Sen. (Thad) Cochran said at least he wouldn't have to go to Erie any more to campaign for me," Specter said jokingly of his Mississippi colleague.

His tone was less genial as he blasted the Club for Growth and its willingness to work to oust Republican incumbents to "purify the party." He cited former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee as an example of someone who had been forced into a damaging GOP primary, then lost the general election.

Andy Roth, director of government affairs for the Club for Growth, called Specter's criticism "hogwash." Saying the Republican Party stands for lower taxes and limited government, he added: "If a party takes in whoever it wants, it doesn't stand for anything."

The National Republican Trust PAC issued a statement taking credit for Specter's departure. "The integrity of the Republican Party has just gone up," Executive Director Scott Wheeler said. And the Republican congressional campaign committee put out a fundraising appeal citing Specter. "Good riddance," the e-mail's subject line read.

'A loss for our party'

Republicans have fallen on hard times in the Northeast, once the base of the moderate Yankee wing of the GOP. There were 11 Republican senators from Maryland to Maine in 1984. Now there are three. In Pennsylvania, since Specter last ran in 2004 the number of registered Republicans has dropped by 200,000; the number of Democrats has risen by 400,000.

In March, Specter told The Hill newspaper that he would remain a Republican because the United States "very desperately needs a two-party system." He said then, "I'm afraid that we're becoming a one-party system, with Republicans becoming just a regional party" with a Southern base.

David Girard-diCarlo, a Pennsylvania lawyer who co-chaired George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign in the state, says he shares Specter's frustrations.

"When you look at the demographics in the Northeast, we seem to be running out of Republicans, and that is a cause of concern," says Girard-diCarlo, who served last year as ambassador to Austria. "The Republican Party should take a hard look at itself. If we can't be a national party, then we have some serious introspection that I think must occur."

He called Specter's switch "a loss for our party to be candid," and adds: "He's going to be extremely hard to beat."

Specter said it wasn't clear whether endorsements by Obama and Rendell would be enough to clear the field in the Democratic primary. Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, who hasn't ruled out a race, issued a caustic statement. "Arlen has made a decision to leave a race because he could not win against someone," he said. "What needs to be known is what he is running for."

When Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords switched from Republican to independent in 2001, he gave control of the divided chamber to the Democrats and shook the Bush White House. Some said Specter's decision could prove to be just as consequential.

"Unless (Republican) Norm Coleman can pull out his race (in Minnesota) it means that there will be no check and balance on the Democratic control," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican, calling Specter's switch "a disappointing development."

The news and speculation about its repercussions overshadowed even the swine flu outbreak as a topic in official Washington. "Specter to switch parties?" Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a tweet on her Twitter account. "Wow."

Other senators who switched sides

There have been 21 U.S. senators since 1893, including Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who have switched political parties while in office. Most did so after becoming disenchanted with their party's policies. A look at seven recent party switchers.

Chart reported by Catalina Camia

Sources: U.S. Senate and USA TODAY research.

Contributing: Fredreka Schouten and Richard Wolf in Washington; Mimi Hall in Arnold, Mo.