Democrats Are Foolish to Humiliate Arlen Specter

Why go out of their way to annoy their newest member?

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Now just one vote shy of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority, Senate Democrats have demonstrated to the world that their increasing hubris has clouded their judgment.

Reacting to a forth-coming New York Times magazine story in which the newest member of their caucus jokes he hopes Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman (who is currently locked in a protracted political and legal battle with challenger Al Franken over who won the election there last November) is returned to the office, members of the Senate Democratic Caucus voted Tuesday night to strip Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of his 29-years of seniority. That makes him the party's most junior member, and the most junior member of every committee on which he serves.

In a place like the Senate, where tradition rules, stripping Specter of his seniority is a very real, very severe punishment. And, according to Specter, it also violates the deal he made with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., when he agreed to cross the aisle.

"Sen. Reid assured me that I would keep my committee assignments and that I would have the same seniority as if I had been elected as a Democrat in 1980," Specter said in a statement Wednesday.

"It was understood that the issue of subcommittee chairmanships would not be decided until after the 2010 election. Some members of the caucus have raised concerns about my seniority, so the caucus will vote on my seniority at the same time subcommittee chairmanships are confirmed after the 2010 election. I am confident my seniority will be maintained under the arrangement I worked out with Sen. Reid," Specter said. But that would require a different outcome from what happened Tuesday.

It could be that, having scored the PR victory that Specter's switch generated, Democrats are now looking to jettison the longtime Pennsylvania senator in favor of someone even more in line with the party's liberal wing.

Specter's switch did not go over well at all with some liberal organizations, who now object to the presumption that he brought with him the right to run unopposed in the upcoming Democratic primary. "Our elected officials should have to compete for their seats, and Arlen Specter is no exception," Arshad Hasan, executive director of Democracy for America, a 725,000-member political action committee, told Politico. But to now push him out of the way? It seems unlikely.

A better answer is that it may be the result of stupidity induced by excessive hubris. Said one conservative D.C. lobbyist who has often tangled with Specter—and who privately cheered his defection—"They think they don't need to keep him happy anymore. But they have no idea what they have unleashed by taking away his seniority. And they have no idea what kind of retribution he is capable of bringing down on them. And he will."

In practical terms, while the Democrats have enough members in their caucus to pass almost any piece of legislation they choose, without Franken and without Specter they cannot keep the Republicans from prolonging Senate debates for days, weeks, months and, potentially forever on party line votes. With Franken, who many Republicans privately concede will probably be seated even though he probably did not win the election, and Specter they do. That makes the antagonism directed at the 29-year incumbent puzzling.

At the end of the day it may emerge that, until the next election, Arlen Specter is the most important member of the U.S. Senate. His vote may and probably will determine whether the Democrats and President Obama get their way on a number of issues important to them and to their coalition—including card check, the forthcoming Supreme Court nomination, and efforts to increase federal spending even more. Setting out to deliberately antagonize him—more than that to humiliate him—seems, at the very least, foolish. They should want to keep him in the corral, and that means making efforts to appease him. Instead, they seem determined by their actions to keep him on the fence, as if somehow he needs them more than they need him.

That's the wrong political calculation and, for the Democrats, it may prove a fatal one for many of their legislative ambitions.

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