How the White House Learned of Specter's Decision

Wednesday, April 29, 2009; 12:53 AM

By Michael D. Shear

President Obama was being briefed by his economic advisers Tuesday morning when his personal secretary, Katie Johnson, made a rare interruption.

Sen. Arlen Specter is on the phone and would like to speak to you, she told the president, according to a senior official present at the time. Obama waved her off, noting that he was in a meeting at the moment.

Find out what he wants, Obama said.

Johnson left the Oval Office, but returned moments later, with a note, written by White House counsel Greg Craig, who had spoken with the Pennsylvania Republican. "Specter is announcing he is changing parties," the note said.

"Obama's eyes got very wide," recalled the top adviser.

Get him back on the phone, Obama told Johnson.

Specter's decision took the rest of Washington by surprise yesterday, too. That the moderate Republican might consider jumping ship was not altogether shocking. But the timing -- and the lack of any meaningful leaks beforehand -- was news to almost everyone in town.

Senior White House officials said the decision to switch was Specter's, and insisted that he was not lobbied heavily by members of Obama's administration.

"Everyone wanted to give him the space to work things out for himself," a top White House aide said. "We did not dispatch anyone with a basket of goodies."

The one exception was vice president Joe Biden, who is a long-time friend of Specter's and was the leading administration official tasked with getting Specter's vote on the recovery act earlier this year.

Biden succeeded in the earlier effort, delivering Specter's vote and securing the bill's passage. In the 10 weeks since the president signed the stimulus bill, Biden has met with Specter face-to-face six times and talked on the phone at least eight times, advisers said.

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