Specter Party Switch Could Prove Problematic for Democrats

They won't have the Republican filibuster to kick around anymore.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid used to get laughs at fundraisers, I'm told, by saying of erstwhile Republican Sen. Arlen Specter: He's always there when we don't need him (or words to that effect). Now Democrats have him regardless of whether they want him, but the question remains: Will he be there when they need him?

Beware what you wish for, my Democratic friends, the magical 60 figure may have more shine than heft.

In a very real way, Specter's party-hop might redound against the Democrats, not simply for the high-minded reasons Jack lays out in his post reacting to the Specter news, but for more practical ones. Specifically, once Al Franken is (almost inevitably) seated as the Minnesota's second senator and the Democrats' 60th, the donkeys won't have the Senate GOP to kick around anymore. They'll actually have to stick together and get things done. This is easier said than accomplished.

As Doug Heye opined today:

Over the past 99 days, we've heard Democrats complaining that Republicans have obstructed the Obama agenda, are the "Party of No," etc., etc. With 60 seats in the Senate, those protests will be codified as hollow. (A good problem to have, to be sure.)

So let's see. He's still opposed to "card check." He's still opposed to using the budget reconciliation process to pass a healthcare overhaul. He's still opposed to Dawn Johnsen as head of the Office of Legal Counsel. Granted, on card check he had painted himself into a corner with his apparent play for conservative votes back in his Republican days (his flat stand against the bill), and his vote is irrelevant on reconciliation, which only requires 51 in favor.

But on what issue, specifically, will Arlen the Democrat differ from Arlen the Republican? When he was a Republican he could fill the role of bipartisan fig leaf. But now when he casts the same votes, he's just a member toeing the party line. And while Republicans have tried to paint him as some sort of wild-eyed lefty, he instantly becomes the most conservative senator in the Democratic caucus, to the right of Ben Nelson, according to National Journal's 2007 ratings (the most recent I could find). Maybe there's something to the notion that party loyalty (however newly-minted) counts in a pinch or at the margins, but what in Specter's career—particularly if the primary field is more or less cleared for him—makes anyone think that he'll be a much more reliable Democratic vote now than he used to be?

On the flip side, once Franken is seated, the Democrats will have that magical thing, a "filibuster-proof majority." But that presupposes a level of ideological cohesion that may not be possible in American politics. Will everyone in the Democratic caucus, from Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter all the way through Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer, be able to agree on a reform of the healthcare system? On a second stimulus package? On an immigration reform? I'm not so sure.

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