So Much for the Specter of a Flu Pandemic

The newly minted Democrat with his wife, Joan. No word yet on the party affiliation of Mrs. Specter.
The newly minted Democrat with his wife, Joan. No word yet on the party affiliation of Mrs. Specter. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Washington found itself in the grip yesterday of two contagions: swine flu and Specter fever.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was holding the first congressional hearing to determine what more can be done to stop the Mexican flu from turning into a pandemic. But at 1:45 p.m., the flu was overtaken by the fever, resulting in instant paralysis in the body politic.

Less than an hour after the hearing started, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) sauntered in, trailed by 10 photographers shooting thousands of frames of the man who, 90 minutes earlier, announced that he was abandoning the GOP. Instead of taking his usual spot next to Harkin in the ranking Republican's chair, Specter chose a seat at the end of the row of Democrats.

"I regret that I can't stay longer, but this is a complicated day for me," Specter declared, and everybody but the mystified public health officials erupted in laughter.

"That's not a laugh line, but you can laugh," Specter allowed.

Harkin, forgetting for the moment about pandemic flu, celebrated his new Democratic colleague as "a great partner, a great friend, a great leader in health care."

He got up and hugged Specter -- even though the CDC has warned that such close contact could speed the spread of swine flu.

Without asking a single question, Specter left the flu hearing to give a news conference. In the hallway he told the photographers which way he'd be walking, then waited while they got in position to film him. "I'll give you all time to set up," he offered.

You might think that, with tens of millions of lives potentially at stake, political Washington would abandon its maneuverings for a day or two and figure out what can be done to, say, speed up vaccine production. But even in a swine flu outbreak, Congress has no immunity to pigheadedness.

That, of course, is how we got into this situation to begin with: Despite years of warnings about a pandemic, vaccines are still grown in eggs, the way they were in the 19th century. There aren't enough manufacturing facilities for vaccines or hospital beds for the sick or plans to keep services running while millions are dying.

But in Washington, even a potential pandemic pales in comparison to a party switcher. Reporters fled Harkin's hearing for Specter's news conference in the Senate TV studio. There, the Pennsylvania moderate said he was changing parties -- and possibly giving Democrats the filibuster-proof majority of 60 -- for the simple fact that he faced "bleak" prospects in a Republican primary next year.

Suddenly, the flu could wait; everybody had a case of Specter fever. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) forgot all about the swine flu as he gave a news conference denouncing Specter and "the threat to the country presented by this defection."

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