Snarlin' Arlen—as Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is known—has suddenly become the Democrats' darlin'. The gruff lawmaker stunned the political world today by announcing that he is leaving the Republican Party—his home for 43 years—and joining ranks with the Democrats. He entered the Senate in 1981.
The turnaround represents a seismic shift for national Democrats on the eve of President Obama's first 100 days. Specter will become the 59th lawmaker to caucus with Democrats; 57 others belong to the party, and two are independents who vote with them. Depending on the result of the still-contested Senate race involving Democratic candidate Al Franken in Minnesota, the party now is poised to reach the magic number of 60 needed to bypass Senate filibusters. Those 60 votes would mean that Obama could find it easier to advance a far-reaching agenda on healthcare, energy, and a host of issues.
Specter issued a statement saying that he has worked hard for the GOP, its candidates, and its ideals, but "my party has not defined who I am." He added, "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."
In recent weeks, Specter, 79, who is up for re-election in 2010 and facing a primary challenge from a prominent conservative, repeatedly turned aside Democratic overtures. The courtship heated up after Specter was one of only three GOP lawmakers in Congress to vote in February for Obama's $787 billion stimulus package. Their votes were crucial to its passage.
As recently as April 2, Specter was asked about turning aside efforts by high-level Democrats, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, to lure him over to the other party. At the time, Specter said in an interview, "It's not a very complicated decision. I am a Republican. I think my voice is very important in the Republican caucus. If you were a fly on the wall and you heard what went on, you'd see that voices like mine are necessary to provide some balance. So I think I have an important role to play there."
He added: "I am a Republican. I am running on the Republican ticket in the Republican primary. I've had some primaries in the past."
Specter, though, went on to say that conservative Republican Pat Toomey, a former House member and the president of the antitax Club for Growth, was a "very substantial threat" as a primary opponent. Toomey came close to beating Specter in a primary in 2004.
In the interview, Specter also said that at least one other Republican senator voted against the stimulus out of survival instincts. "After I announced my position on the stimulus, one of my senior Republican colleagues said to me in the cloakroom, 'I'm proud of you, Arlen.' I said, 'Are you going to vote with me?' He said, 'No. I couldn't. It might cost me a primary.''