WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter said Tuesday that he'd become a Democrat, inching President Barack Obama's party to within a whisker of the 60 Senate votes it needs to cut off extended debate and advance his key initiatives.
Specter, 79, a Republican senator since 1981, made his dramatic announcement after reading 2010 re-election polls and realizing that conservative Pat Toomey, a former Pennsylvania congressman, was poised to trounce him in the state's primary.
"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the U.S. Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," Specter said.
He said that the party he'd joined in the mid-1960s, after switching from the Democratic Party, "has moved further and further to the right."
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As a result, Specter said, "I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more aligned with the philosophy of the Democratic Party."
His decision stunned Washington. With his vote — effective next week when he changes his registration — Democrats will control 59 Senate seats. Minnesota Democrat Al Franken appears likely to win a long-delayed judicial decision on his disputed election, and if he does he'll become the 60th member of the Democrats' Senate caucus.
Under the rules of the 100-member Senate, 60 votes are needed to shut off debate and move to a final vote on most legislation. Sixty votes in Democratic control could neutralize the Republican minority and ensure passage of Obama's agenda.
A Democratic caucus of 60 votes still wouldn't guarantee success, however. A handful of Democratic moderates sometime break ranks — and Specter himself stressed that "I will not be an automatic 60th vote." He's long prided himself on his independence and positioned himself carefully as a swing-vote moderate.
Still, his decision is important.
First, it opens him to party-discipline pressure from Senate Democratic leaders, strong currency at the Capitol. While congressional leaders generally don't make overt threats to party members who don't vote their way, there's usually an understanding that on key votes, it's risky to buck the leaders.
Also, Specter will retain his seniority rights, meaning that he could become the fourth-ranking Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee and number two on the Judiciary panel.
Specter faced some stark political numbers. Pennsylvania experienced a major shift in voter registration from Republican to Democratic in last year's presidential elections. For example, Montgomery County, a Philadelphia suburb that was once a Republican bastion, claimed a Democratic majority by voter registration for the first time in recent history.
As moderates left, the state Republican Party became smaller and more strictly conservative. By last October, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans in Pennsylvania by 1.2 million, according to registration figures.
Toomey nearly toppled Specter in 2004, losing by 2 percentage points in the primary. This time, he looked even stronger; a Rasmussen Reports poll last week found Toomey ahead of Specter by 21 percentage points among Pennsylvania Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky rejected any suggestion that Specter's move signaled danger for the national Republican Party: "This is a Pennsylvania story," McConnell said, contending that Specter made the move because it's his only chance to retain his seat.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, dubbed Specter's decision "the height of political self-preservation."
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., voicing conservative ire, called the switch "self-serving" and said he was tired of "the Senate Republican leadership's coddling of Senator Specter."
Good riddance, Bunning said, adding, "Senator Specter has never been a reliable voice for the conservative values that Republicans like myself have spent our lives fighting for and I look forward to seeing him defeated in 2010."
McConnell's and Cornyn's disclaimers notwithstanding, Specter's decision further defines the GOP as a conservative party that can't hold on to moderates and lawmakers from the Northeast.
The six New England states have no Republicans in the House of Representatives, and only three Northeastern senators are Republicans, including Specter.
One of them was upset at Specter's decision. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine called the defection "devastating news" and a wake-up call for the GOP to treat its moderate members better or face becoming a marginalized, mostly Southern party.
"We continue to systematically lose moderates," she said. "If the Republican Party isn't welcoming to moderates and they want to remove moderates from the party, then they're well on their way, regrettably."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a conservative, agreed, saying the defection "would put pressure on the Republican Party to recruit candidates who can competitively run in blue states. I'm for a right-of-center agenda, but ideological purity is not going to win the day for either party. So I'm looking for a balanced party and a balanced country."
Democrats have been talking to Specter about switching for about five years, and Reid suggested Tuesday that "I've had conversations with others" about doing the same, but he provided no details.
Specter said he reached the decision "gradually as I have traveled the state in the last several months," and acknowledged that Democrats long have tried to lure him their way.
He recalled how, at a recent event in Philadelphia, Vice President Joe Biden, an old friend from the Senate, urged him to become a Democrat. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who was also present, "said if I became a Democrat, he would help me raise money," Specter said.
He said, laughing, "I responded, if I became a Democrat, I wouldn't need him to help me raise money. . . . I've changed my mind about that."
Valerie Jarrett, senior White House adviser, noted that Specter and Biden, who was a Delaware senator for 36 years before he became vice president three months ago, are "very close" and the two have talked intensely over the past few months.
Specter informed Biden by phone of his decision Tuesday morning. Biden has talked to Specter almost weekly since becoming vice president and has met with him six times since mid-February, according to a White House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to disclose the information.
Specter reaped fresh Republican wrath in February when he was one of three Republican senators to back Obama's $787 billion economic-stimulus plan. Those three votes were crucial to stopping unlimited debate, and conservatives wouldn't let him forget it.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Tuesday called Specter "a valuable ally," citing that vote.
Specter went to the Capitol on Tuesday with his wife, Joan, a former Philadelphia city council member, and their son. They ate lunch alone in a Senate dining room, then he briefly visited the weekly Republican policy luncheon.
He got a polite reception there; Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., joked that at least he wouldn't have to travel to Erie, Pa., to campaign for him anymore.
Then a relaxed, often-joking Specter faced reporters.
"This is a painful decision," he said in a voice that lacked its usual strength. "I know that I'm disappointing many of my friends and colleagues, but, frankly, I have been disappointed by some of the responses, so the disappointment runs in both directions."
Don't expect a sudden change in how the Senate operates, he warned.
"I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own approach to individual issues," he vowed.
(Margaret Talev, Halimah Abdullah, Barbara Barrett and James Rosen contributed to this article.)
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