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Published: Wednesday, 4/29/2009

Sen. Specter moves full circle, returns to Democratic Party

BY JAMES O'TOOLE
AND TIMOTHY McNULTY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

WASHINGTON - Although he was able to shrug off the taunts of "Benedict Arlen," and "Judas," Sen. Arlen Specter found that "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."

That was nearly a half-century ago, when, as he recounts in his autobiography, Passion for Truth, he bucked the entrenched machine of his longtime party, a party that had spurned him, to become Philadelphia's district attorney as the nominee of the Republicans.

Yesterday, Mr. Specter's political path came full circle as he stunned his Senate colleges with the announcement that he would seek a sixth Senate term as a Democrat.

"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the Untied States Senate decided by the Republican primary electorate, not prepared to have that record decided by that jury," Mr. Specter said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

After months of insisting that he would run again as a Republican in the face of a renewed challenge from the conservative wing of his party, Mr. Specter said that daunting poll results led him to decide over the weekend to accept the longstanding courtship of senior Democrats to return to their fold.

The move reflected and reinforced a Democratic tide in Pennsylvania politics exemplified by President Obama's big win in 2008 and the gains in congressional races the party has scored over the last two election cycles.

But more immediately, it created the potential for a filibuster-proof Senate majority that could give the Democrats unfettered control of the federal government as Congress deals with the Obama Administration's ambitious agenda.

His switch and the anticipated victory of Al Franken in the protracted Minnesota Senate race, mean Democrats could have the 60 votes needed to turn aside GOP opposition to legislation or Obama nominees to the judiciary or any other posts requiring Senate confirmation.

Mr. Specter insisted, however, that the political reality might be more complicated that the legislative arithmetic might suggest.

He said, for instance, that he would continue to oppose legislation designed to make it easier for unions to organize new work places.

And he added that he opposed calls by some Democrats to adopt major legislation, such as health-care reform, under procedures that would demand only simple majorities for passage.

"I will not be an automatic 60th vote," he said. "I have always agreed with John Kennedy that sometimes a party asks too much. And if the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not hesitate to disagree and vote my independent thinking and what I consider as a matter of conscience to be in the interest of the state and the nation."

Mr. Specter faced an uphill battle to retain the GOP nomination next year in the face of challenges from Pat Toomey, the former congressman who just missed unseating him in 2004, and from another conservative, Peg Luksik.

The long-simmering conservative opposition he had managed to survive for most of his career came to a boil earlier this year with the vote that made him one of only three Republicans to support the stimulus package sought by the Obama Administration.

The President was informed of Mr. Specter's decision in a note passed to him during his morning economic briefing. According to a White House official, the two talked by phone at 10:32 a.m. and the President told Mr. Specter that he was "thrilled" to welcome him to the Democratic Party.

Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said the new Democrat had the President's "full support."

Asked about the possibility of a Democratic primary, he reiterated, "Full support means full support."

In a subsequent news conference, Mr. Specter said that the President told him that he was prepared to campaign for him next year.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole and Timothy McNulty are staff writers at the Post-Gazette.



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