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Specter’s Switch Further Tilts Senate Power Toward Democrats

April 28, 2009 at 6:00 PM EST
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Long-time GOP Sen. Arlen Specter said Tuesday he will switch parties and join the Democrats, bringing the party within one seat of a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority. Political reporters assess the news.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story: Senate Republicans suffered a major defection today. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced he’s leaving the party.

His switch moved the balance of power in Congress even more decisively to the Democrats.

The announcement sent shockwaves through the Capitol, and it put Senate Democrats just one seat away from a 60-vote majority, enough to defeat any filibuster.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, D-Penn.: One item that I want to emphasize, that I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own votes to individual issues. I will not be an automatic 60th vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the 79-year-old Specter also said the Republican Party’s shift to the right in recent years has put his political philosophy more in line with the Democrats.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: When you take a look at the Pennsylvania Republican electorate, several hundred thousand Republicans shifted last year, and it has a bleak picture. We do not have a dominant voice there. But we find, I think regrettably, that the extremes of both parties are taking over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The background is Specter faced potential trouble winning re-election as a Republican in 2010. He would have had a difficult primary challenge from a former GOP congressman, Pat Toomey, who led by double digits in recent polls.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said it was that dire political reality that more than anything forced Specter’s hand.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., Senate minority leader: 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, and so he made a totally political decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Democratic majority leader Harry Reid said the switch had more to do with how the Republicans treated Specter.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., Senate majority leader: These people in the Republican caucus got this right-wing guy to run against him. Well, how is that? Does that make you feel pretty welcome in your caucus, if you knew people were out there trying to do that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama called Specter to welcome him to the Democratic Party.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: The president reached Senator Specter, told the senator that, after hearing the news that he was going switch parties, that he had the president’s full support and that he was thrilled to have him as a member of the Democratic Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gibbs also said the president would be happy to campaign for Specter.

In the meantime, the Democrats’ drive to get to 60 votes in the Senate now turns on the still-undecided Senate race in Minnesota. Democrat Al Franken holds a narrow lead over Republican Norm Coleman. The legal fight to name a winner goes before that state’s Supreme Court in June.

Announcement shocks Capitol Hill

Stu Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Political Report
This was a case where Arlen Specter is a survivor. He's a political animal. He cares about winning, whether it's on the legislative issues, confirmation issues, or in this case, electoral issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, we're joined by Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's political daily.

Well, thank you both.

And, Stu, is this as big a surprise as it looks like?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: It was a shocker to me, Judy. I don't think we expected this. We understood that Specter was in trouble. There had been some talk about, well, might he run as an independent?

Everybody decided that that was -- the requirements were too onerous in terms of getting signatures, but there wasn't a lot of talk of switching parties. Now, this was a big deal, big news day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why is he doing this, Amy?

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Well, the set-up piece put it out there pretty clearly. And he said this, too, that the numbers just weren't there to win his nomination as a Republican.

This is a state -- and it would be very different maybe if he were in a different state -- but this is a state where to vote in a primary you have to be registered as that party, so independents can't vote in a primary. Democrats can't vote in a Republican primary.

When you looked at the Republican Party electorate, his numbers terrible. I mean, he was somewhere in the 30s among Republicans. Among Democrats, he had a 70 percent approval rating in the last poll. So literally the numbers not there to win the nomination.

He came right out and said, I'm not willing to put my years in the Senate on the line for a bunch of Republican primary voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's interesting that he acknowledged that he was in trouble.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Shockingly honest. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the honesty.

Yes, this was a case where Arlen Specter is a survivor. He's a political animal. He cares about winning, whether it's on the legislative issues, confirmation issues, or in this case, electoral issues. And he was very straightforward, and he's absolutely right. He probably would not have been re-nominated, would have been out of the Senate. He chose this tactic.

There are still some Republicans that say, well, maybe he should have tried to run as an independent. But this was a straight political calculation and, frankly, not an unreasonable one, if his goal is to stay in the Senate and be an effective senator.

Republicans denounce Specter

Amy Walter
The Hotline
This is a party that's still trying to find its identity, that's still trying to get back those voters that were lost in this last election. And this is another indication that perhaps they can't get them back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, the Republicans seem pretty angry about this.

AMY WALTER: Yes, what were the words, a defector, act of self-preservation, this isn't a national story? Of course. And you saw this from Democrats, too, when Joe Lieberman, you know, decided to leave the Democrats, run as an independent. There was a lot of hand-wringing there. Should President Obama allow him to chair a committee, right? Are these people really part of our party?

So of course it's understandable that they're frustrated. The question now is, do they put up a serious challenge to Arlen Specter knowing how expensive it is, number one, in Pennsylvania, number two, that it's a very Democratic state? And Specter is going to be tough to beat. He's got $6 million right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there's already somebody running.

STUART ROTHENBERG: There is. Pat Toomey is in the race. And he is the -- he's the guy who slayed the dragon. That's the way conservatives will view it.

I think we have to emphasize that, in Washington, there was anger and there was disappointment, particularly among the leaders. Let's remember, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, the head of the Republican Senate campaign committee, just recently said they're behind Arlen Specter. He's the way to hold the seat.

But the grassroots, I think, was just excited and thrilled that Specter left the party. The conservatives really wanted to get rid of him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's broaden this out, though, and talk about, what does this say, Amy, about the Republican Party?

AMY WALTER: Right. Well, despite the hope that this can be just a regional story, it certainly reflects more broadly on the Republicans, just in terms of their ability to try to keep a foothold in these states that have been trending blue.

The reality in the story that's going to be written for now and for the next few days is going to be, have Republicans just lost their way completely with moderates, with moderate voters? This is a party that's still trying to find its identity, that's still trying to get back those voters that were lost in this last election. And this is another indication that perhaps they can't get them back.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Judy, I'd go back to my point. I think the folks in Washington understand that, party strategists, Republican senators. I think the problem is the grassroots. They're just so ideological, they continue to believe that they need to be more conservative to win elections, where most strategists believe -- in the Northeast, you need moderate Republicans to appeal to more moderate voters.

So it's really a question of, do you understand that this is a very big country with different kinds of people in different parts of the country?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But when you say grassroots, whom are you talking about?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I'm talking about the activists who are right now on the blogger -- on the blogs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not everybody who votes Republican, but the...

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, no. Conservative activists who call Arlen Specter and other Republicans "RINOs," "Republicans in name only," people who are members of interest groups, conservative interest groups. They are happy. They think their party is stronger because it's purer and it will be a better contrast with Democrats.

Prospects for Obama's agenda

Stu Rothenberg
The Rothenberg Political Report
We talk about 60 votes, but it's kind of a theoretical 60 votes, because actually the question is, do they have 60 votes on particular motions and particular bills?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, what does this mean for President Obama's agenda? Because we heard Arlen Specter say, you know, I'm going to continue to vote the way I have.

AMY WALTER: Right. I mean, look, this is somebody who has supported a lot of pieces of President Obama's agenda. And I think this is going to be a very important piece to think about as we move forward, in terms of how much Specter is embraced by the grassroot Democrats in Pennsylvania.

Right now we know that the establishment in Washington, happy to have another vote. But let's watch and see his votes on other big issues, the Obama agenda. If Specter does not hew closely enough to the Obama agenda, will the grassroots try to find a liberal alternative in a Democratic primary, right?

We're still a year out from the primaries, so the numbers right now benefit Arlen Specter, but we have to watch his voting record. But when you look at where he was, in terms of his voting record compared to the rest of his party, in fact, almost all these people are gone now.

I went back and looked at his 2008 voting record. Gordon Smith, Ted Stevens, Chuck Hagel, John Warner were the only Republicans who voted as moderately as he did. None of those Republicans are left in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about some of the important votes coming up this year, health care, the president's budget vote?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Right. Well, we can't be sure. I mean, we talk about 60 votes, but it's kind of a theoretical 60 votes, because actually the question is, do they have 60 votes on particular motions and particular bills?

If you look at his record on SCHIP, the Fair Pay Act of 2009, the stimulus bill, obviously, he has supported Democratic initiatives, and I think you can expect that, particularly on something like health care, where he's been very active.

But on other things, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, what the Republicans refer to as card check, the labor union bill...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the labor union...

STUART ROTHENBERG: You know, it's anybody's guess. I mean, he's had positions on both sides of the issues. And I expect him to continue to be independent, because that's his personality, that's his style.

So we don't know. But on health care, I think he has a pretty long record of supporting a more activist government position.

Power balance in Congress

Amy Walter
The Hotline
Harry Reid, the majority leader, doesn't necessarily have 60 votes on a whole lot of things, capping carbon, for example, another thing that for moderate Democrats is going to be tough to swallow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, you both have watched the Congress for a long time. So do we look suddenly for things to look very different and turn out differently in the Senate?

AMY WALTER: Well, I don't think so, because, as Stu pointed out, he is probably going to be voting this way anyway. And the question was, was he going to be voting this way as a Republican or as a Democrat and what the consequences would be for this?

So the 60 vote, too -- and we've talked about this a lot -- it is this somewhat of a manufactured number, in that there are a lot of Democrats, for example, on the Employee Free Choice Act or card check, whatever you want to call it, who've already come out and said, "We can't support this."

So Harry Reid, the majority leader, doesn't necessarily have 60 votes on a whole lot of things, capping carbon, for example, another thing that for moderate Democrats is going to be tough to swallow. So I don't think this changes the calculus so much for the Senate; it just is more psychological.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think it puts some added pressure on some of these Democrats who come from more conservative or moderate states, whether it's Senator Lincoln, Senator Landrieu, Senator Ben Nelson. They may be more under the gun now. Are they going to vote with their states or are they going to vote with their party?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Collins and Senator Snowe of Maine as important as they used to be?

AMY WALTER: No, I think...

STUART ROTHENBERG: They're important.

AMY WALTER: And I think this was an important point, which is that, you know, Susan Collins won re-election in 2008 by a huge margin, even as Republicans from less moderate states were losing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And creates, just quickly, Stu, even more interest in that Minnesota Senate race, still unresolved.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, absolutely. And it's hard to imagine that Norm Coleman will ever get out of the race...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican.

STUART ROTHENBERG: ... as long as he can -- right, stay in there to deny the Democrats that 60th seat. So it also ratchets up, obviously, the importance of that outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Thank you both. Stu Rothenberg, Amy Walter, thank you.