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Arlen Specter switching parties, could give Democrats filibuster-proof Senate

April 28, 2009 |  9:52 am

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter

Sen. Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican from Pennsylvania who has been in the Senate since 1980, announced today that he is switching parties, a huge power play that could change the dynamics of Washington politics for the rest of the Obama administration.

Reelected in 2004 after a brutal primary contest from Rep. Pat Toomey, Specter may have decided that with Toomey chasing him again, reelection in 2010 required a shift to the left along with his state.

And, as one of only three moderate Republicans to vote for President Obama's $787-billion economic stimulus package, Specter was already an endangered species, a member of a shrinking pool of moderate Northeast Republicans who now include only the two senators from Maine -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

Ronald Reagan often said that he didn't leave the Democratic Party, it was the Democratic Party that left him with its tilt to the left. Today Specter said that the Republican Party that once welcomed him as part of a "big tent" party has now moved "far to the right."

Specter warned in his statement that "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."

But Senate Democrats must have been gleeful over the development. With Democrat Al Franken ahead of Republican Norm Coleman by 312 votes in the Minnesota Senate race, the prospect of Democrats reaching the magic, filibuster-proof number of 60 in the Senate is in sight.

In giving Democrats that prize, Specter, a savvy political infighter who is now ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, likely negotiated with Senate leaders for consideration on top committees.

Either way Obama, informed of the party switch that could change the nature of his relations with Congress, called Specter and told him, "You have my full support," according to White House officials.

Read Specter's full statement below.

-- Johanna Neuman

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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.

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