Democrats Wait To See How Sen. Specter Votes
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Here's some of what's changed so far in the life of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter. Now that he's become a Democrat, he's moved his Senate desk across the aisle to the other side. He's gone from the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee to being just another Democrat. And for the first time yesterday he joined the regular lunch of his Democratic colleagues. That's what's changed.
Here's what has not changed. Specter still keeps everybody guessing about his intentions. Here's NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA: It's not as if Senator Arlen Specter misled anyone about the kind of Democrat he intends to be. Here's what he said last week when he announced he would no longer be a Republican.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): If the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not hesitate to disagree and vote my independent thinking and what I consider as a matter of conscious to be in the interests of the state and nation.
WELNA: And sure enough, when President Obama's budget came up for a vote the next day in the Senate, Specter did not hesitate to break ranks with his new party.
Unidentified Man: Mr. Specter. Mr. Specter, no.
WELNA: The next day Specter helped kill a measure backed by most Democrats that would've allowed bankruptcy courts to rewrite the terms of troubled mortgages. Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, sponsored that measure. Still, Durbin seems willing to cut Specter some slack.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): There are many things that he did as a member of the Republican caucus, positions he took, letters he wrote, and they've created a body of positions on issues that, you know, he's going to be respectful of. But there will come a time when he's going to be dealing with newer issues and newer challenges, and so I don't want to presume how he's going to vote. But I think he's going through this transition phase at the moment.
WELNA: Bob Casey, the other Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, says the real test of Specter's intentions actually came before he defected. It was when Specter broke ranks with Republicans to vote for President Obama's economic stimulus package.
Senator ROBERT CASEY (Democrat, Pennsylvania): It was basically you're going to be on the side of the president to do something or you weren't. It was that simple. And his vote in that instance was, I think, a good indication that he's going to be part of the team that helps to get the economy out of the ditch. And I think over time the same, I hope, will be true of health care.
WELNA: And yet Specter has already said he won't vote for any government-run health plan that competes with private plans. He's also said that he won't provide a key vote for legislation backed by labor and most Democrats making it easier to unionize workers. And he says he still plans to vote against Dawn Johnsen, whom President Obama nominated to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
Liberal activists say Specter's voting record in the coming months will determine whether they support him in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary next year. Marge Baker is with People for the American Way, which strongly opposed some of President Bush's judicial nominees whom Specter supported.
Ms. MARGE BAKER (People for the American Way): We'll watch very closely how he votes on the nominations, including not just on the merits of nominations but on if there is any attempt to filibuster.
WELNA: Also watching Specter's every move is Joe Sestak, a second term House Democrat representing a district south of Philadelphia. He's a retired two-star Navy admiral and he says he's deeply troubled by Specter's party switch.
Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I have grave concerns about this. It should not be an expedient decision by the political Democratic establishment in Washington, D.C. about what they need. It needs to be what Pennsylvanians need. And right now the jury's out on Arlen. But I'm not sure it's going to come in with a verdict for him.
WELNA: And would Sestak himself challenge Specter in the Democratic primary next spring?
Rep. SESTAK: If Arlen is not the individual that we Democrats believe we should have, yes, I would enter this race.
WELNA: Sestak says he'll make a final decision in the next few months. Specter insists he's not worried about voters accepting him as a Democrat.
Senator SPECTER: I have a strong record of being for the little guy, just to put a characterization on it. But if you take a look at the specifics, I'm pro-choice, which has been a mainstay of the Democratic platform. I broke with the Republican Party on federal funding on embryonic stem cell research, on funding for veterans, minimum wage.
WELNA: So you don't have to prove yourself to these Democrats?
Senator SPECTER: Well, I think in this line of work you have to prove yourself every day to everybody.
WELNA: And he might well have added you also have to keep them guessing.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.