Sen. Specter Switches Parties

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter announced Tuesday that he is switching parties and will run for re-election in 2010 as a Democrat. The switch means that if Democrat Al Franken is declared the winner in the contested Minnesota Senate race, the Democratic caucus will have the 60 votes needed to block GOP filibusters.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Today in the US Senate, a political bombshell: Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, one of the Senate's most senior Republicans, announced he's leaving the GOP and will seek reelection next year as a Democrat. That, along with the prospect of Minnesota Democrat Al Franken winning his state's vacant seat would give Senate Democrats the 60 votes needed to stop Republican filibusters. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Word of Senator Specter's leap across the aisle spread like wildfire through the US Capitol today. But when the 79-year-old fifth-term Senator himself confirmed those reports, that electrified atmosphere took on a somber note.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): This is a painful decision. I know that I'm disappointing many of my friends and colleagues. And frankly, I've been disappointed by some of the responses, so the disappointment runs in both directions.

WELNA: Specter said the Republican Party has moved farther to the right and has left him more in line with the Democratic Party, which he'd left in the early 1960s. But Specter also acknowledged that polls in Pennsylvania showed he had no chance to defeat Pat Toomey in next year's Republican Senate primary. Toomey is the conservative who nearly beat Specter in the party's primary five years ago.

Sen. SPECTER: I have to make a calculation as to whether it's possible, realistic to fight for the moderate wing of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, and I do not think it's realistic. It's bleak.

WELNA: And so Specter decided last weekend, after repeated entreaties from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to go to the welcoming arms of the Democratic Party. Reid was notably understated today in claiming victory.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): This is not any time to gloat or give high fives. It's a time to consider a person who took an extremely difficult step to return to the party where he started.

WELNA: At the same time, Reid insisted that Specter - who was one of only three Republicans in Congress to vote for the economic stimulus bill - was pushed out by his party.

Sen. REID: I mean, these people in the Republican Caucus got this right-wing guy to run against him. How is that - does that make you feel pretty welcome in your caucus if you knew people were out there trying to do that?

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): This is not a national story. This is a Pennsylvania story.

WELNA: That's the leader of Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell. He admitted Republicans were not happy with Specter's departure, which the minority leader characterized as purely pragmatic.

Sen. McCONNELL: But it certainly sets up the potential for the majority, if it chooses to, to run roughshod over the majority - over the minority, to eliminate checks and balances and the kind of restraint that Americans have historically wanted from their government.

WELNA: But Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said it's doubtful Democrats will always hang together to block Republican filibusters.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): There will be many issues where some of the moderate Democrats cannot vote with the majority of the Democrats, and I imagine that Senator Specter will join that group.

WELNA: Specter himself left no doubt today about his intentions to vote as he pleases.

Sen. SPECTER: I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own approach to individual issues. I will not be an automatic 60th vote.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Republican Sen. Arlen Specter To Switch Parties

Five-term GOP Sen. Arlen Specter said Tuesday that his party had "gone too far to the right" and he would defect to the Democrats. But he promised to maintain his independence and not be an "automatic" vote for his new party.

Specter, 79, said in a statement that he had surveyed his supporters and officeholders in Pennsylvania and it had "become clear" that his support of the White House stimulus package had "caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable."

Later, appearing for a news conference in Washington, he said in a reference to a likely 2010 Republican primary challenge that he was "not prepared to have my fate decided by that jury."

"I know I disappoint my friends and colleagues," he said. "But, frankly, I have been disappointed by some of the response. So, the disappointment runs in both directions."

Specter was one of only three GOP senators to vote for President Obama's stimulus bill. Widely viewed as among the most moderate GOP lawmakers, Specter had found himself at odds with the party line on several times over the years, particularly over his support of abortion and gay rights.

With Specter, Democrats would have 59 Senate seats. Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, whose election is still in question months after voters went to the polls, could become a 60th vote, giving the party the number it needs to block filibusters by GOP senators.

Specter, however, took pains to say he would maintain his hallmark independence.

"I will not be an automatic 60th vote," he emphasized. "I have always agreed with John Kennedy that sometimes a party asks too much. And if the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not hesitate to disagree."

President Obama telephoned Specter to offer his "full support," saying the Democratic Party was "thrilled" to have him, The Associated Press reported. The senator said Vice President Biden had recently urged him to become a Democrat.

Specter, whose likely opponent in the 2010 GOP primary would have been former conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, had publicly acknowledged that to win, he would need thousands of Pennsylvania voters who had switched from Republican to Democrat in last year's presidential election to vote for him.

Senate colleagues in the Republican Party reacted with either disappointment or resignation, while Democrats welcomed a new member to their caucus.

Arizona Sen. John McCain expressed his regret. "I think it's pretty obvious the polls showed him well behind his primary opponent," the former GOP presidential candidate said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said he was "disappointed" at the decision.

"Arlen's a good friend, a great guy." he said.

Asked if he was surprised by the move, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin said: "I'm surprised it happened this quickly. I thought it might have to germinate a little bit longer," before adding, "But, this is fine."

The move, however, left others wondering about the future of a party that has increasingly edged out moderate voices.

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe said she has also been wooed by Democrats but has "no plans" to do the same as Specter. She nonetheless expressed concern over the direction of her party.

"The statements that are coming nationally from the Republican Party ... nurture a culture of exclusion and alienation," she said. "I really think this is a time for the Republican Party to ... re-evaluate and redefine."

As one of the most senior Republicans in the Senate, Specter enjoyed powerful posts on the Judiciary and Appropriations panels. Democrats must now decide how much seniority he gets credit for in their committee assignments.

From NPR and wire service reports

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