Party Looks for a Little Loyalty From New Democrat

By Dan Balz
Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pity Arlen Specter. A week ago he was standing in the White House, a newly minted Democrat, the toast of the town (or at least the portion controlled by the Democrats). President Obama promised to watch his back. Vice President Biden said he'd do the same.

Today he looks like just another embattled politician trying to find his way around town. His former party is glad to be rid of him. His new party has put him through the equivalent of a ritual hazing. And having ducked a Republican primary, he may yet have to fight hard in 2010 to retain his seat in the Senate.

There is a certain justice in all of this. For years, Specter has driven his minders mad. "Independent" barely describes his modus operandi. "Predictably unpredictable" might be the better term. Specter has intellect and experience, but a team player he is not.

Democrats knew this when the switch was in the works, but in case some forgot, Specter has gone out of his way to remind them. On NBC's "Meet the Press" this past Sunday, he declared that he would not march in lockstep with his new party. "I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat," he told host David Gregory.

Specter added significantly to his woes this week. Asked by the New York Times Magazine whether he was concerned by the absence of Jewish Republicans in the Senate, he said, "There's still time for the Minnesota courts to do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday that he asked Specter about that remark. "I forgot what team I was on," Reid said Specter told him.

Specter is learning the consequences of switching parties at a moment of weakness. He was welcomed by the White House and by Senate Democratic leaders, but he was not in a position to extract much in return. He did not, for example, demand that the Democrats clear the field for him in the primary, although Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) has been trying to pull some strings to make that happen.

Nor, apparently, was Specter able to get assurances that he would retain seniority on Senate committees. That issue blew up into a he-said, he-said between Specter and Reid, with Specter telling The Washington Post's Paul Kane yesterday that he was told he would maintain committee seniority. "When I talked to Senator Reid, he assured me that my seniority would be as if I came in [as a Democrat] in 1980, and I relied upon his representation, and that's the long and short of it," he said.

Reid told Kane that's not the way he remembers it. He said Specter was assured he would retain his overall seniority in the Senate, but not on committees, until after the 2010 elections. Specter has gone from the ranking Republican to the lowliest Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Eight years ago, then-Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.) ended up as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee when he bolted from the GOP and caucused with the Democrats. That gave Democrats control of the Senate, and in the subsequent reorganization, Reid voluntarily relinquished his position on the committee. This time, Reid has promised to do whatever he can, but other Democrats are not yet convinced that Specter is really one of them.

In what ways is Specter willing to make accommodations to show some allegiance to the Democrats? So far, the record is thin. Shortly after appearing with Obama at the White House last week, Specter voted against the president's budget. He said he objected to a provision that would allow Democrats to pass a health-care measure with just 51 votes, avoiding the need to find 60 votes to shut off a possible filibuster. Specter said that would undermine a basic tenet of Senate procedure for enacting major legislation.

What role will Specter choose to play on health care? His high-profile part in helping Republicans sink the Clinton plan in 1994 may give Democrats pause. He said last week that he opposes the inclusion of a government-run insurance plan as part of health-care reform, a key provision for liberal Democrats. Certainly he will have his own ideas, but if he plays hard to get, if he is a reluctant vote, if he holds out indefinitely as he has sometimes done in the past, then he will not endear himself to members of his new party.

Democrats are looking for some sign that Specter recognizes that he needs to make an affirmative statement on some issue important to them. Health care. Torture. A court nominee. But that has rarely been in Specter's DNA. He has operated so long at the midpoint of the ideological spectrum in the Senate, applying his considerable brain power to difficult issues, weighing his options, then -- finally -- acting on his own. He is not a party man.

His state has shifted beneath him since he last ran for reelection. In the past year or so, 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans re-registered as Democrats. Specter no doubt assumes they are like he is -- weary of the rightward drift of the national party. He must also assume they are certain to support him as a Democratic nominee next year.

But there is also, in Pennsylvania as elsewhere, an energetic Democratic base enamored of the president and anxious for elected officials to demonstrate their loyalty to the administration's agenda. Would they support Rep. Joe Sestak in the primary, if he chose to challenge Specter?

The other worry for Specter is the talk that former Republican governor Tom Ridge is looking into running for the Senate. Ridge was a popular governor from the party's moderate wing. If he emerged as the Republican nominee against Democrat Specter, the race would start without a clear favorite. In that case, Specter's age could work against him. He is 79 and has battled cancer. Voters might decide it's time for a change.

Specter isn't likely to change his habits. But if political survival was the principal reason he left the Republican Party, he may need to make further accommodations to show that becoming a Democrat means something more to him than a label on a ballot.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company