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On First Day as Democrat, Specter (Again) Bucks His Party

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) began his first full day as a Democrat since the early 1960s at a party-switching celebration hosted by President Obama and Vice President Biden. He ended it by casting another vote against Obama, opposing his budget as too authoritarian in the rules it establishes for the health-care debate later this year.

Same Arlen Specter, different party label.

For almost 30 years, Specter vexed Republicans with a zigzagging legislative agenda that at times made him their closest ally and at others their worst enemy. Now he has decided to cross the aisle to join Democrats, and his intention to be provocative in his party remains evident.

After two days of telling his colleagues his decision, Specter settled in yesterday for a mix of celebration and an effort to return to his routine. He went from the White House to a 20-minute meeting in Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's office to discuss his committee work, then met with postmasters from Pennsylvania and other constituents.

By this morning, the transformation will be officially complete, as Senate officials plan to unbolt Specter's desk from the right side of the chamber, where he has sat since January 1981, and wedge it into the cramped quarters on the Democratic side of the aisle.

"I'm interested in staying in the Senate, for good reason," Specter said in an interview yesterday.

His decision places the Democrats on the cusp of a 60-vote majority, pending the state Supreme Court hearings of the Minnesota Senate race. Although he praised Obama's stewardship in his first 100 days in office, Specter has repeatedly said the reason he is switching parties is the pursuit of his own agenda. After supporting Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan in February, Specter found himself under fire from conservatives back home, leading to a primary challenge from former representative Pat Toomey, who almost knocked him off in the 2004 GOP primary.

The fateful decision to switch, after 43 years of electoral politics as a Republican, came Sunday night at his son's suburban Philadelphia home, what Specter calls his "center of gravity" because he gets to watch his four granddaughters run around. He gathered his wife, Joan, and his eldest son, Shanin, around the kitchen table to hash out what he called his "undesirable options."

Trailing badly against Toomey, he could stay in a Republican primary and lose, or he could retire. But even Specter's 15-year-old granddaughter kept coming back to another option, encouraging her grandfather to change parties and run as a Democrat.

It would mean coming full circle. Specter first left the Democrats in the mid-1960s when he began his political career as a law-and-order GOP district attorney in Philadelphia.

He made his latest move, he said, because he was not done with the Senate, no matter which side of the aisle he had to sit on. Having survived tough elections before, he had also tackled brain and bypass surgeries in the 1990s and, most recently, two bouts of chemotherapy for cancer. Most of all, the ultimate survivor wanted to remain the self-proclaimed "champion" of medical research. "I think that research has saved or prolonged lives, including mine, and I want to continue to do that," Specter said yesterday.

His former GOP compatriots have turned on him. The National Republican Senatorial Committee flooded Pennsylvania with phone calls reminding Democratic voters of support for Specter in 2004 from then-President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney. The House Republican campaign outfit sent out a fundraising pitch called "Good Riddance," seeking to profit from conservative anger at Specter as a turncoat.

This is nothing new to Specter, who joked at his news conference Tuesday that throughout his 28-year career, he had "alienated the entire electorate."

Conservatives have never forgiven him for his opposition to Ronald Reagan's 1987 nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, but liberals have never forgotten him for his harsh cross-examination of Anita Hill in the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas as associate justice of the Supreme Court. He supports abortion rights, but in 1997 -- heading into an election year -- he announced his opposition to a late-term abortion procedure that had become a key issue for Pennsylvania's many Catholic voters.

Democrats are confronting their own growing pains with Specter. He made his switch by also announcing his continued opposition to a union-organizing bill and an Obama choice to run the Justice Department's legal counsel office. Yesterday, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for noncontroversial nominees, Democratic staff had set up space for Specter on the very last seat, the most junior slot. The new Democrat didn't make it to the meeting, though aides placed a bottle of Gatorade and a pack of tissues -- necessary utilities for those coming off chemo -- on his desk just in case Specter appeared.

On the Senate floor last night, Specter never made it to the Democratic side. Instead he stood chatting with Republicans such as Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.).

Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the GOP budget chief who made his own flip-flop by accepting, then rejecting, Obama's offer to be commerce secretary, walked by to thank Specter for opposing the new president's budget.

But Specter said that the political center of gravity has moved, causing Republicans to lose a great deal of ground in the Northeast and Midwest in the past three years, and that it makes more sense for him to have these intramural squabbles with Democrats now.

For the most part, everywhere Specter turned yesterday, he was reminded of his self-described "major matter." His phone lines were flooded with callers, a majority of constituents supportive and almost all out-of-state callers opposed, aides said. Some passersby waved to him, others just stared. An electrical worker from central Pennsylvania politely interrupted an interview, shook the senator's hand and just said, "Thank you very much."

Specter barely acknowledged the electrician, instead repeating words he had uttered before in his own defense:

"I don't represent the Republican Party. I represent the people of Pennsylvania."

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