After serving 29 years in the U.S. Senate as a member of the Republican Party, key Senate swing voter Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania stunned Washington this week by announcing he would run for re-election as a Democrat in 2010.
Specter’s party switch could be a major boost to President Obama’s ambitious legislative agenda. With Specter now a Democrat, Democrats hold a 59-40 advantage in the Senate when including two Independents, who tend to vote with Democrats on social issues.
As you know, 60 votes in the Senate are needed to cut off debate, end a filibuster, and force a final vote on any legislation. In theory, Specter brings the Democrats one vote closer to the “60” number. And the Democrats could reach 60 if Democratic-challenger Al Franken becomes Minnesota’s newest Senator. Last November, Franken apparently beat incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman by a slim margin, but Coleman is continuing to contest the results in court.
What impact will this change in the Senate have on pending HR-related legislation? On the one hand, Specter has said don’t expect him to vote with a majority of his new Democratic colleagues on every issue. In his public statement announcing his decision to change parties, Specter said, “I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position (in opposition to) on the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 1409/S. 560), will not change.”
On the other hand, Specter will be under pressure from the White House and Senate Democratic leaders to support President Obama’s agenda – especially since the President has promised to campaign for Specter in what could be a difficult re-election race in 2010.
Prior to his decision this week, Specter had been the ranking Republican member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education. In switching to the Democratic Party, he reportedly will retain his Senate seniority among Democrats. However, it is unclear whether or not Specter will be asked to chair a Senate committee or subcommittee.