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Specter switches parties

From NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro

The Washington Post's Cillizza first reported and NBC News confirms that Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has switched parties, which would give Democrats a filibuster-proof 60 seats if/once Al Franken is seated.

Here's Specter's statement:

         April 28, 2009

         Statement by Senator Arlen Specter

I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.

Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.

When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party. But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing.

Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.

I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.

I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election.

I deeply regret that I will be disappointing many friends and supporters. I can understand their disappointment. I am also disappointed that so many in the Party I have worked for for more than four decades do not want me to be their candidate. It is very painful on both sides. I thank specially Senators McConnell and Cornyn for their forbearance.

I am not making this decision because there are no important and interesting opportunities outside the Senate. I take on this complicated run for re-election because I am deeply concerned about the future of our country and I believe I have a significant contribution to make on many of the key issues of the day, especially medical research. NIH funding has saved or lengthened thousands of lives, including mine, and much more needs to be done. And my seniority is very important to continue to bring important projects vital to Pennsylvania's economy.

I am taking this action now because there are fewer than thirteen months to the 2010 Pennsylvania Primary and there is much to be done in preparation for that election. Upon request, I will return campaign contributions contributed during this cycle.

While each member of the Senate caucuses with his Party, what each of us hopes to accomplish is distinct from his party affiliation. The American people do not care which Party solves the problems confronting our nation. And no Senator, no matter how loyal he is to his Party, should or would put party loyalty above his duty to the state and nation.

My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords' switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.

Whatever my party affiliation, I will continue to be guided by President Kennedy's statement that sometimes Party asks too much. When it does, I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America.

*** UPDATE *** NBC's Chris Donovan points out that just a little over a month ago, on March 18, Specter told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "To eliminate any doubt, I am a Republican, and I am running for reelection in 2010 as a Republican on the Republican ticket," Specter said in a statement released by his campaign manager.

*** UPDATE 2 *** Specter was facing a tough re-election campaign in 2010. His poll numbers and approval ratings had been sinking among Republicans. The state party and state Republican officials didn't appear warm to the longtime moderate. He also got a challenge from former Club for Growth President Pat Toomey. Six years ago, Specter eked out a primary win over Toomey. This year, he was trailing in some polls to Toomey. The political landscape since 2004 in Pennsylvania has shifted. Obama won the state by double-digits, with huge Democratic registration growth, particularly in the populous Philadelphia suburbs.

Also remember that the 2010 Senate primary is closed. In other words, independents don't get to vote and would consist of more of a party activist base.

*** UPDATE 3 *** NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports that while in the Oval Office and during his Economic Daily Briefing, the president was handed a note that said, "Specter is announcing he is changing parties."

At 10:30 a.m. ET, the president called Specter and told him, "You have my full support" and that the White House/Democrats are "thrilled to have you."

*** UPDATE 4 *** Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) on MSNBC with David Shuster, indicated that he'd spoken to Specter before he made the switch, said, "Welcome, Arlen."

*** UPDATE 5 *** Rejecting "the talk-show wing" of the GOP?
Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) on MSNBC with Shuster: "He like I used to be a Republican" and they "rejected the talk-show wing of the Republican Party," he said.

*** UPDATE 6 *** Republican reaction:
Republicans are telling NBC News that Specter's move is entirely about keeping his Senate seat, since he was going to receive a TOUGH primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey, who almost defeated Specter in a GOP primary in 2004.

Specter "has apparently chosen the path of political expediency," a GOP official tells NBC.

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reported at 12:20 that Minority leader Mitch McConnell and top GOP senators are meeting now. They will have a statement after their discussion. There is no timeline yet as to when they were notified of Specter's decision.

*** UPDATE 7 *** Schumer on Specter: "Arlen Specter, through the years, has been an effective, intelligent and moderate senator. We welcome him into the Democratic Party and our caucus in the Senate with open arms and can understand that his party, particularly in the last three months, has shown no room for moderates. On a personal basis, I look forward to continuing to work with Arlen on a full range of issues. While it will still take a great deal of work to pass the President's comprehensive and bold agenda, the Republican party will no longer be able to revert to kneejerk filibusters at every whim to block progress, and that is a very good thing for Americans."

*** UPDATE 8 *** RNC Chairman Michael Steele on Specter: "Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not. Let's be honest-Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record. Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don't do it first."

*** UPDATE 9 *** The AFL-CIO thinks this means Specter could be open to supporting "Card Check" now: "Throw out all the common wisdom about Employee Free Choice Act," a spokesman sent around to reporters after hearing of the news.

*** UPDATE 10 *** NBC's Harry Enten points out some of the poll numbers for Specter v. Toomey in a GOP primary. In particular check out the switch from December 2008 to March of this year:
Research 2000 (12/8-10, 2008): Specter 43%, Toomey 28%
Qunnipiac (March 19-23, 2009): Toomey 41%, Specter 27%

*** UPDATE 11 *** More on the timeline from NBC's Kelly O'Donnell:
Capitol Hill sources tell NBC News there had been active discussion between senior Democratic leadership and Arlen Specter for about three weeks.

NO DEM OPPONENT PROMISED: Specter was promised that the Democratic Party would fully support his candidacy as a Democrat and would not back any other Democrat seeking the seat. "In money and message," the party will be behind Specter. Any other Democrat who intends to run will "not have the blessing of the party."

NO CHAIRMANSHIP ON THE TABLE: Sources say Specter will not be given a chairmanship during this Congress, the 111th. For now, "chairmanships were not on the table" as a part of the party switch negotiations.

NOTIFICATION: Specter told McConnell today after signaling to Reid and other leaders in the "last day or so" that he was willing to switch, sources said.

APPROACHED DURING STIMULUS DEBATE: Reid and Sen. Menedez, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, approached Specter during the stimulus negotiations to suggest a party switch. At that time, sources say Specter indicated he was "willing to think about it." Sources say Specter was disappointed that he had increasingly been at odds with his party. Specter insisted to Reid that he would vote his conscience and would not always be a Dem party-line vote as indicated in Specter's own release.

"THINGS HE STILL WANTS TO GET DONE": Specter told Democratic leadership that there are "things he still wants to get done" in office, according to sources. Collectively, their conversations determined he was unlikely to win in 2010.

*** UPDATE 12 *** "I am so thrilled with this news," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell reports. She called him a "fighter" and noted that she's worked with him often. She added, "I am thrilled to have Arlen Specter working with us. ... I am sure the people of Pennsylvania will give him the support he deserves."

*** UPDATE 13 *** NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (R-TX) on Specter: "Senator Specter's decision today represents the height of political self-preservation. While this presents a short-term disappointment, voters next year will have a clear choice to cast their ballots for a potentially unbridled Democrat super-majority versus the system of checks-and-balances that Americans deserve." Note that Cornyn consistently expressed support for Specter, unlike Steele, for example.

*** UPDATE 14 *** NBC's Ken Strickland reports on more of the context:
First, Specter told Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday in Reid's leadership office in the Capitol.

Specter called his long-time friend and Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy this morning. Leahy, who had a front-row seat for Jim Jeffords' party switching, said he was not surprised by specter's move.

Assuming Franken gets seated, Specter would give Democrats to 60 votes needed to break filibusters. But even Leahy admits it's by no means an automatic. "In our caucus we don't have any automatic votes for anything," Leahy said today. "I expect him to be just as independent as ever."

As long as there are moderate Democrats, as long as there are regional issues like energy and farming, the Democratic caucus always runs the risk of being fractured (i.e. specter is pro-choice; his PA Democratic colleague senator Bob Casey is pro-life.)

Senate No. 3 Democrat Chuck Schumer agrees. "Anyone who says the president's agenda can slide right thru here is wrong. That will not happen... but the really good news for us is that the Republican sort of knee-jerk filibuster at every whim cannot happen. That will mean much more debate and much more progress, and it's a major effect."

It means Democrats will at least be able to make the trains run faster -- get through the procedural stuff faster -- in order get to the final votes. While Republicans may have been unable to kill controversial bills, they have been able to slow things down. Specter and Franken votes with the Democratic caucus would dramatically reduce the procedural brinkmanship.

Schumer, who ran the Democrats' Senate campaign committee for at least two cycles added that "The Republican Party has just become inhospitable to moderates, and it just became very uncomfortable for Arlen Specter."

Leahy agreed, saying, "Arlen Specter didn't leave the Republican Party. The party left him."

*** UPDATE 15 *** Sen. Robert Byrd on Specter: "Senator Arlen Specter is one smart Senator. He is an independent thinker of the type that the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they conceived the office of U.S. Senator. He is tough, thorough, and he can't be intimidated. I am delighted to welcome him as a Democratic colleague. Arlen Specter gives our side of the aisle not only a numerical boost, but also an intellectual shot in the arm."

*** UPDATE 16 *** Lindsey Graham on Specter: "While I often disagreed and voted opposite Senator Specter, I am very disappointed with his decision. Senator Specter's switch puts Senate Democrats on the verge of hitting the magic 60 vote threshold. I hope Senator Specter will hold his ground on card check and other important issues working their way through the Senate.

"The situation in Pennsylvania highlights the dilemma facing the Republican Party. Ideologically, we are a center-right party and I am committed to maintaining that position. However, for us to have national relevance we have to run and win in blue states. As a party we have to expand our base and diversify our membership while maintaining our fiscally conservative, limited government approach.

"Today's decision by Senator Specter puts a great deal of pressure on red-state Democratic Senators. Their constituents will look to them to reject a far left-wing agenda. President Obama and the Democratic majority will likely see this as an opportunity to pass card check and nationalize our health care system. I hope moderate Democrats will be willing to speak out against what could be a radical left-wing agenda that may be forthcoming."

*** UPDATE 17 *** A return to the Democratic Party
NBC's Chris Donovan adds, One interesting tidbit is Specter is actually returning to the Democratic Party. In his statement today note that Specter said he has been a Republican since 1966. That's because before 1966 he was a registered Democrat, but decided in 1965 to run as a Republican candidate for Philadelphia District Attorney when he realized he wasn't getting the support of the local Democratic Party for the post and Philly's Republican leader approached him about running. 

In his 2000 memoir "Passion for Truth," Specter wrote about his decision to change parties: "Changing parties involved a high level of trauma. It wasn't like changing religions, but there were elements of arguable disloyalty and opportunism that rubbed me the wrong way."

And interestingly enough, he recalled Democrats shouting at the time: "Benedict Arlen!" And "Judas!"

Here are a few lines from his memoir.  He covers the issue from pages 140-146:
"I held no allegiance or even sympathy for the local Democratic machine. I had to fight the machine to bring the Teamsters to trial and to subpoena the necessary witnesses who were Democratic bigwigs. Nonetheless, changing parties involved a high level of trauma. It wasn't like changing religions, but there were elements of arguable disloyalty and opportunism that rubbed me the wrong way. I thought about what my father would say. He had been a staunch FDR Democrat." (Page 144)

"I was also fighting an accusation of betrayal. Democrats shouted 'Benedict Arlen!' and 'Judas!' But I had never taken an oath to the Democratic Party. I had taken an oath to the people of Philadelphia. I firmly believed that DA Jim Crumlish had shirked his responsibilities as the city's top law-enforcement officer. He had not cracked down on crime and corruption. I knew that Philadelphia needed tough law enforcement, and I thought I could deliver it." (Page 146)