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.

People close to Biden said the vice president has been urging Specter to make the switch for years. But they said the conversations intensified during the past several weeks as Biden watched political developments in Pennsylvania.

"They certainly talked about the fact that both the vice president and the president would be happy to go to bat for Sen. Specter in every way possible," a top adviser to Biden said.

As Biden pressed his case, aides said he "regularly informed" Obama about the conversations, telling the president recently that he was cautiously optimistic about the prospects.

" 'I talked to Arlen,' " Biden would tell the president, one aide recalled. " 'Still working on him. Still working on him.' [Obama] was obviously aware," the aide recalled.

Specter tried to call Biden early Tuesday morning to inform him before news leaked. But aides said the two were unable to connect because Biden was in Texas for an event at the National Domestic Violence Hotline Center.

They talked later in the day, an aide said.

Obama and Biden are scheduled to join the newest member of their Democratic Party for some brief comments Wednesday morning.

The White House announced the trio will make remarks to the press at 8 a.m., before Obama leaves for a town hall meeting in St. Louis. The brief event will take place in the Diplomatic Room of the White House.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company