Sen. Arlen Specter’s defection from the GOP rocked Capitol Hill on Tuesday, setting off a round of bitter recriminations from Republicans while giving already cocksure Democrats fresh confidence that they have turned the page on more than a decade of GOP dominance in Washington, D.C.
Specter joins the likes of former Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) in choosing to switch his party affiliation — a move that could have long-term implications for both Republicans and Democrats.
While Senate Democrats tried their hardest to be gracious about Specter’s new alliance, even as they used the defection as a fundraising tool to fill the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s coffers, Republicans largely struggled to come to terms with what the decision meant for their already beleaguered party.
Specter’s decision to leave the GOP came after recent polling showed that the moderate Republican had little chance of winning a primary contest against Pat Toomey, the former Republican House Member and one-time head of the conservative Club for Growth. Specter said he “found that the prospects of winning a Republican primary bleak.—
Specter, who previously rebuffed talk that he would consider abandoning the GOP, was wooed actively by Vice President Joseph Biden, President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, to make the switch. Also key was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who also played a pivotal role in Jeffords’ 2001 switch from the Republican Party and in convincing his fellow Democrats to keep Lieberman in their fold after a November election that gave the Conference a 58-Member majority.
But Specter, whose decision clearly caught his Republican Senate colleagues off guard, laid the blame for his departure squarely at the feet of party conservatives, who he said have made little room for moderates like himself.
Specter said he was “disappointed— with the reaction from many Republicans, and he charged that national GOP leaders in Washington haven’t stood up to what he described as a hostile takeover by hard-line social conservatives.
“Republicans didn’t rally to [former Rep.] Wayne Gilchrest in Maryland … Republicans didn’t rally to the banner of Joe Schwarz in Michigan … Republicans didn’t rally to the banner of [former New Mexico Rep.] Heather Wilson,— Specter said, arguing that in each case the Club for Growth and other conservative groups took down moderate Republican lawmakers while party officials stood by. “They don’t make any bones about their willingness to lose the general election if they can purify the party … there ought to be a rebellion, there ought to be an uprising— of Republicans, Specter said.
But Republican leaders were quick to slam Specter, charging his decision to defect was driven by nothing more than political expediency and a desire to win re-election to the Senate in 2010 at any cost.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that while Republicans have not done well in recent cycles in the Northeast, Specter’s decision shouldn’t be viewed as a failure of his party.
[IMGCAP(1)]“This is not a national story; this is a Pennsylvania story. This is a Pennsylvania story about his inability, according to his pollster, to be re-nominated by the Republican Party or to be elected as an independent. We have not done very well in the Northeast the last couple of years.
“We haven’t done as well any places as we would like to have done in the last couple of years,— McConnell said, adding that “we intend to be competitive on a nationwide basis. I do not accept that we’re going to be a regional party. And we’re working very hard to compete throughout the country.—
Likewise, the National Republican Senatorial Committee wasted no time in questioning Specter’s motives.
“He was very candid to acknowledge that this was simply nothing more, nothing less than political self-preservation,— NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said.
Republicans also said that although members of the Conference were respectful of Specter when he addressed them on Tuesday afternoon during their weekly policy lunch, a large number were visibly angry with him, particularly the Conference’s younger Senators. “A lot of people have gone out on a limb for him over 30 years,— one Senate Republican noted.
Moderate Republicans, however, appeared to have some sympathy for Specter’s plight and his feeling that the party has become too conservative in recent years. Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), who like Specter has come under attack from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, warned that the GOP has become too narrow in its appeal. Republicans “have to be inclusive. It’s more about sending your message more broadly,— she said.
As is to be expected, Democrats welcomed the decision. “Sen. Specter and I have had a long dialogue about his place in an evolving Republican Party. We have not always agreed on every issue, but Sen. Specter has shown a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, put people over party, and do what is right for Pennsylvanians and all Americans,— Reid said, adding that, “I welcome Sen. Specter and his moderate voice to our diverse caucus, and to continuing our open and honest debate about the best way to make life better for the American people.—
“Happy to have him,— echoed Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), while Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) called the decision “great news.—
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who has worked with Specter on a number of regional issues, said he was pleased his longtime colleague had joined the Democratic ranks, and he joined Specter in blaming Republicans for forcing him to bolt.
“In my view … he was treated disrespectfully by his party,— Lautenberg said. “I think he’s had a tough time casting some of the votes he’s been compelled to cast.—
Obama was in the Oval Office at about 10:30 a.m. receiving his daily economic briefing when he was handed a note saying that Specter was coming to the Democratic Party, according to a White House official.
Obama was able to reach Specter by phone about 10 minutes later to tell the Senator that he has his complete support and that the party “is thrilled to have you,— the official said.
Specter’s historic decision will have both short- and long-term ramifications for both parties.
For Democrats, assuming Specter wins his re-election next year, it could likely mean an intraparty power struggle between the veteran Pennsylvanian and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who now chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Both lawmakers serve on the panel now, and once the next session convenes, Specter’s seniority, which he will retain, would technically put him in position to take control of the subcommittee — possibly setting the stage for a fight over who will claim the gavel.
But Reid made clear Tuesday that those types of conflicts are off the table, at least for now. Reid said Monday that any changes to Senate committee or subcommittee makeups would be voluntary and would not be forced on any Members. “Sen. Specter knows that no one will be dumped off a full committee or subcommittee except on a voluntary basis,— Reid explained.
For Republicans, the fallout from Specter’s switch will likely be far more complicated and painful. With his departure, the Conference’s once-powerful bloc of solid moderates has dwindled to just two, both of whom hail from a single state —Maine’s Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins. Specter’s departure could signal an even sharper decline in support for Republicans in the Northeast and upper Midwest, where former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is facing an almost certain defeat in his protracted re-election race against Democrat Al Franken. With Franken, Reid would have a filibuster-proof, 60-seat Democratic hold on the Senate.
McConnell and other leaders have lamented the erosion of the party’s support outside the South and West, and Specter’s defection could make efforts to rebuild in other parts of the country even more difficult.
Keith Koffler contributed to this report.