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Specter Switches Parties in Preparation for 2010 Campaign

By Kathleen Hunter and Bart Jansen, CQ Staff

April 28, 2009 -- Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced Tuesday that he is switching parties and will campaign as a Democrat in 2010, a decision that could bolster his re-election prospects and would move the Democrats closer to a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate.

"The prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak," Specter said at an afternoon news conference. He sharply criticized the Republican Party for not doing more for moderate Republicans, and said he was not prepared to have his fate determined by a "Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate."

"I have decided to be a candidate for election in 2010 in the Democratic primary," Specter said. "This is a painful decision. I know I am disappointing many of my friends and colleagues. Frankly I have been disappointed by some of the response, so the disappointment runs in both directions."

But Specter stressed that he plans to maintain his independence.

"One item that I want to emphasize that I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own approach to individual issues," Specter said. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote."

With Specter aligning with the Democrats, Senate Democrats would control 60 votes if Democrat Al Franken is certified as Minnesota's new senator. Senate filibusters are much easier to overcome with a 60-vote majority.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Specter is a Democrat, effective immediately, but it was unclear when the party switch would become official.

Specter's decision followed a long courtship by Democrats including Reid and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. A poll released last week showed Specter badly trailing former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey—who headed the conservative Club for Growth—in a potential Republican primary next year.

"I am ready, willing, and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election," Specter, a 79-year-old cancer survivor, said in a statement posted on his campaign Web site.

Toomey told CNN that Specter's switch was "an act of betrayal to the Republicans that have been supporting him."

"I'm stunned. I had no idea this was coming," said Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas called it "not a good thing" that Democrats can reach the 60 votes needed to limit debate.

"I think it's most unfortunate obviously for the Republican Party," Roberts said. "I respect him. If he feels strongly about this and wants to change, obviously that's his decision."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Specter becoming a Democrat "dramatically changes the dynamic and strengthens our party, our caucus in the United States Senate."

Specter arrived late to the Republicans' weekly policy meeting Tuesday after eating lunch with his wife Joan and his older son Shanin in the members' dining room. As he entered the room—just off the Senate floor—he was greeted with a stony silence from GOP senators. Specter left the GOP meeting after about 10 minutes and headed to a hearing on the swine flu outbreak.

Committee Shuffles

Specter said he understood that for overall seniority purposes, he would be treated as if he entered the Senate as a Democrat when he was first elected in 1980.

Senate Democrats had not completely worked out Specter's committee positions, however.

As a Republican, Specter is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he will be the No. 2 Democrat on the panel, behind Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who outranks him in seniority.

Leahy said the two have been friends for 40 years and that Specter called him Tuesday morning to share the news about his party switch.

Specter also is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee.

Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is chairman of that panel, but does not outrank Specter on the seniority list. It is highly unlikely that Harkin would give up that gavel during this Congress. But Specter could rightfully claim it in the 112th Congress.

"We haven't worked that out yet," Specter said when asked about eventually taking the subcommittee chairmanship.

Courting a Moderate

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said there had been many efforts over many months to convert Specter. Durbin said he was not a part of them, "other than occasional conversations," but declined to be more specific.

A Reid spokesman said Specter was not promised anything in exchange for switching parties, though Specter said Reid and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell have pledged to support his re-election, as has President Obama. Specter said Rendell has arranged a meeting with Democratic Party leaders to endorse his reelection bid.

Durbin said he also didn't know whether Specter would shade his views on any issues.

"This man has been in the Senate for many years, has established a political platform, philosophy, and most of the time he found himself as a moderate Republican," Durbin said. "I don't know what he has said publicly about his view of the Republican Party today but it's clearly a much different party today than when he joined it."

Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement that he and Specter, over the years, "have had a long dialogue about his place in an evolving Republican Party. We have not always agreed on every issue, but Senator Specter has shown a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, put people over party, and do what is right for Pennsylvanians and all Americans."

A spokesman for Reid said Specter came to see the majority leader in person on Monday to inform the majority leader about the decision.

Specter was one of three GOP moderate senators who backed the economic stimulus law pushed by Obama. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama learned Tuesday morning that Specter was becoming a Democrat and immediately phoned him to say "he had the president's full support and that he was thrilled to have him as a member of the Democratic Party."

Gibbs dodged questions about efforts to win over Specter, but acknowledged that there are people at the White House who have long relationships with the senator. Gibbs said Specter made a decision about how he could best represent the people of Pennsylvania in the Senate.

Although Specter in his statement thanked Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and John Cornyn of Texas for their "forbearance," Cornyn issued a statement slamming Specter about 90 minutes later.

"Senator Specter's decision today represents the height of political self-preservation," said Cornyn, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "While this presents a short-term disappointment, voters next year will have a clear choice to cast their ballots for a potentially unbridled Democrat supermajority versus the system of checks-and-balances that Americans deserve."

McConnell spoke to reporters later.

"Well obviously we are not happy that Sen. Specter has decided to become a Democrat," McConnell said, adding that Specter visited him Monday afternoon to explain the decision to leave the GOP.

As for the prospect of Democrats having a 60-member caucus, McConnell said: "I think the danger of that for the country is that it won't automatically be an ability to restrain the excess that is typically associated with big majorities in single-party rule."

Specter, who became a Republican in 1966 after switching parties once before, said he will not change his approach to individual issues.

"I have always agreed with John Kennedy that sometimes party asks too much and if the Democratic Party asks too much, I wouldn't hesitate to disagree."

Leahy recalled the 2001 decision of Jim Jeffords of Vermont to leave the GOP and caucus with Democrats.

"I know what Jim Jeffords went through, and in my conversation earlier this morning with Sen. Specter, I think he was feeling pretty much the same—that it wasn't so much he leaving the Republican Party but the Republican Party leaving him," Leahy said.

Adriel Bettelheim, Greg Vadala, Keith Perine, Adam Graham-Silverman, Alan Ota, Richard Rubin, Joseph Schatz, and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this story.

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