A Liberal Democrat Returns to the Fold

Arlen Specter started his political life as a liberal Democrat.

And now the senior senator from Pennsylvania is returning to the fold.

Specter, who has served five terms in the Senate as the last of the
old-school Rockefeller Republicans, has finally given up on his long,
fruitless effort to maintain a moderate base within what has become a
hard-right party.

"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the
Republican Party has moved far to the right," the senator explained in a statement announcing his decision to leave the GOP fold.
"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.

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, is now U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania.

The big news, of course, is that with Specter's move Democrats will
have 59 members in their Senate caucus (57 Democrats and independents
Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut). And the
prospect that Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Al Franken will soon
take the seat he won in last fall's Minnesota voting means that the
Specter switch should give the Democrats the 60 seats they need to
avert GOP filibusters of legislation and appointments.

For the Obama administration and the Democrats, Specter party switch is the most dramatic development since the election.

Specter's motivations for switching are no mystery.

The senator, who was a liberal Democratic lawyer in Phildelphia in
the 1960s before joining to the GOP as part of a fight to break the
city's Democratic machine, has long been the most left-leaning member
of the Republican caucus in the chamber. He was targeted for defeat by
conservatives -- led by the Wall Street-funded Club for Growth -- in
2004. President Bush and other key Republicans defended him that year,
not out of love for Specter but because they did not want to lose a
seat representing a blue state.

After he backed the economic stimulus plan that all House
Republicans and most Senate Republicans opposed, Specter became the top
target of the Republican right. Former Congressman Pat Toomey, who
narrowly lost the 2004 Pennsylvania primary to Specter, announced that
he would again challenge the senator in 2010; and GOP chair Michael
Steele sent conflicting signals about whether the incumbent would have
the party's support next year.

At the same time, top Democrats -- led by Vice President Joe Biden,
a former senator from neighboring Delaware, and Pennsylvania Governor
Ed Rendell, a former Democratic National Committee chair -- have been
actively lobbying Specter to change his party affiliation.

Specter's first test will come on the issue of the Employee Free
Choice Act. Despite a history of working closely with labor -- and
enjoying union backing in key contests -- the Pennsylvania senator
sided with Republicans in saying he would support a filibuster to block
the pro-labor legislation.

Presumably, the party switch will free Specter from the pressure to
maintain his credibility -- and fund-raising prospects with big
business interests -- by blocking EFCA. He says now that his position
on EFCA is unchanged, but don't take the senator too seriously.

Watch for the newest Democratic senator to become a key player in a
move to tinker with the measure just enough to secure not just his vote
but that of straying Democratic senators such as Arkansan Blanche
Lincoln. (In fact, while Specter will need some cover for an EFCA
switch, it will undoubtedly be easier to bring him over than Lincoln.)

And watch for Specter to start flying his liberal flag on a number of high-profile issues.

Specter was closely tied to Americans for Democratic Action, the
liberal activist group, in his early campaigns as a Republican. The
Philadelphia ADA backed his early campaigns on the Republican line.

A number of key unions, pro-choice and pro-gay rights groups have
backed him over the years. It was not just that Specter voted right now
and again, he maintained amiable relations with these groups.

The fact of those relationships destroyed his prospects as a GOP
presidential contender in 1996. But they form the basis for the
presumption that Specter will not serve as a cautiously moderate
senator from Pennsylvania but as a reasonably liberal Democrat.

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