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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Sen. Specter Announces Switch To Democratic Party; Could Create Filibuster-Proof Majority

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Sen. Specter Announces Switch To Democratic Party; Could Create Filibuster-Proof Majority
[April 29, 2009]

Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) on Tuesday announced that he would leave the Republican Party to join the Democrats, a move that could decrease the GOP's ability to mount successful filibusters against some items on the Democratic agenda, such as health care reform, the New York Times reports (Hulse/Nagourney, New York Times, 4/29). Specter's party switch makes it possible for Democrats to control a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats, provided that Democrat Al Franken is eventually sworn in to Minnesota's open seat, which is still being determined, CQ Today reports (Perine, CQ Today, 4/28). Specter stressed on Tuesday that the change does not mean he will automatically vote with Democrats on every issue, though he "could be pulled in that direction" now that he will have to run in a Democratic primary, according to the Times. Although Specter supports abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, he backed former President George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees and has taken several other positions that "put him at odds with most Democrats," the Times reports. Specter said he decided to change parties after he and his political advisers determined that he would be unable to win a Republican primary against conservative challenger former Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), who has been leading Specter in polls (New York Times, 4/29).

Specter said Democratic leaders have assured him that his seniority in the Senate would be recognized in the party, which would mean he could bypass some Democrats for subcommittee chair positions after the 2010 midterm elections. Prior to his switch, Specter was the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he formerly chaired. The Washington Post reports that Specter likely will become a subcommittee chair on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Specter indicated that he ultimately would like to chair the committee, the Post reports (Kane et al., Washington Post, 4/29). Specter in 2004 fought an effort by social conservatives to deny him a position on the Judiciary Committee after he suggested that Bush might face a difficult time winning confirmation of judicial nominees who advocated overturning Roe v. Wade. Although Specter succeeded in retaining his position, he achieved this partly as a result of his pledge to push through Bush's nominees regardless of his position on them, according to CQ Today (CQ Today, 4/28).

Potential Effect on Nominees

Specter on Tuesday said that he continues to oppose the confirmation of Dawn Johnsen, Obama's nominee to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. According to the Los Angeles Times, this stance could threaten to overshadow Specter's other positions that align him with the Democratic Party, such as his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research (Wallsten, Los Angeles Times, 4/29).

Some legal experts said that Specter's move to the Democratic Party could make it less likely that Republicans will filibuster Obama's judicial nominees. Michael Gerhardt, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said Specter's party switch "clearly limits -- and maybe even eliminates -- the Republicans' ability to filibuster judicial nominations." Although Specter backed Bush's nominees, he opposed President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. According to CQ Today, although Specter "is likely to be no less independent than he has been as a Republican when it comes to confirmation votes," he has "never shown much appetite for the partisan filibusters of judicial nominees" (CQ Today, 4/28).