Post Politics: Specter's Switch, More

Paul Kane
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Wednesday, April 29, 2009; 11:00 AM

Post congressional reporter Paul Kane took your questions about the impact of Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to become a Democrat and the rest of the latest news out of Washington.


Paul Kane: Greetings, readers. Is there anybody alive out there? What a day. It's utterly miserable here on Capitol Hill, rainy, cold, awful. But it has the feel a little bit of Mardi Gras, or more like Ash Wednesday, where we're done the partying from a big party defection and the 100-day moment is finally upon us.

I'm gonna get right to the questions, and just so you know, I'll intensely focus on Specter questions. I've covered the man closely for more than 12 years, in 3 different reporting jobs. I'll try to give you as much insight as possible into him and his thinking.



Bethesda, Md.: So, I haven't heard any pundits use the phrase "pulling a Lieberman" in relation to Specter's party switch. Yes, I recognize that Lieberman became an independent who caucuses with Democrats but, really. These moves reinforce my belief that Senators are more concerned about being a Senator than with actual political service. Cynical, yes, but I am a native Washingtonian after all.

Paul Kane: Well, Lieberman and Specter's moves were completely different, I think. Lieberman returned to his party after winning re-election as an independent; while his next 2 years after that were filled with ideological sins for Dems -- endorsing McCain and considering becoming his Veep -- Lieberman has been nothing if not a loyal Dem the past four months. And he's even talking about trying to run as a Dem in '12.

Specter has completely abandoned his party.

Just so you know the full Lieberman option -- running as an independent and re-caucusing with Republicans -- was not an option for Specter. Pennsylvania has really restrictive laws making independent bids basically impossible.


Salinas, Calif.: Hi Paul. Now that Arlen Specter has officially crossed the aisle, will there be more pressure than ever on Norm Colemen to take his appeal to the U.S. Supremes? Or has Coleman already made up his mind, one way or another?

Paul Kane: This is the $64,000 question, isn't it?

The Minnesota Supreme Court has not scheduled hearings on Franken v. Coleman until early June, and the Senate Dems have said they won't try to seat Franken until that portion of the legal contest is over. So, you're looking at mid-June, at the absolutely earliest, with early July more likely, for when the Dems could have that opportunity.

Just so everyone knows, the motion to seat Franken is fully debatable, meaning that it is filibusterable. So the Rs could filibuster any effort by Dems to seat Franken, if they want to give Coleman time to pursue his case in the federal courts.

There are 99 senators currently, and it takes 60 senators in such an environment to cut off a filibuster. (Once you drop to 98 sitting senators, then the magic # is 59.)


Kentucky: I think Biden was chosen as VP particularly for his foreign policy experience. Does it seem like he is paying unexpected dividends from his relationships in the Senate?

Paul Kane: Biden was chosen for both of those reasons. Yes, he knows the heads of state around the globe and can be a sage old hand offering his counsel on those matters.

But yes, he is loved in the Senate on both sides of the aisle. Yes, he's long winded and sometimes he puts his foot in his mouth (worth noting: those foot-in-mouth moments are usually when he speaks the truth too freely, as opposed to tall tales).

His old colleagues do like him a lot, however. And that paid real dividends here with Specter, who traveled the Amtrak rails plenty of times with Biden for the previous 28 years that they served in the Senate together.


Davidsonville, Md.: A new Rasmussen poll has the Republicans out front of the Democrats 41-38 in generic polling. Is that troubling to Democrats?

Paul Kane: The generic ballot, at this stage in the game, is not very trustworthy. Let's get to this point next year and see where it is. If it's still 41-38, I think that's grreeeatt for Dems, because it suggests a status quo election. (And that's exactly what Dems are hoping for in 2010, a roughly status quo election that hopefully leaves them 250+ in the House and just above 60 in the Senate.)


The Beavis and Butthead Party: The GOP makes fun of spending money on volcano monitoring, a volcano blows up. The GOP makes fun of spending money on pandemic preparation, a potential pandemic moves in. What is the next serious topic the GOP thought was funny that will blow up in their faces?

Paul Kane: I kinda think the left's efforts to politicize these things is pretty pathetic.

And besides, I don't think Beavis 'n' Butthead would be Republicans. I kinda suspect they eventually grew up to be Hillary Clinton Democrats.


Washington, DC: Mr. Kane, First of all congrats to the Washington Capitals on their come from behind series win over the NY Rangers!

Much has already been written about the impact of a possible Democratic Party filibuster proof Senate - mainly in terms of the legislative agenda such as national health insurance. But what about the impact on the Courts. Doesn;t this remove any roadblocks to appointing progressive judges to the Supreme Court and federal judiciary?

Paul Kane: Eh, I'm not so sure that this move impacts the courts much at all. With 58 votes to begin with, and Franken waiting in the wings, the GOP was in no position to filibuster Obama's judicial nominees. Not to mention several Republicans who were part of the 2005 Gang of 14 deal -- Snowe, Collins, McCain, Graham -- are still around, and they pretty much are on record suggesting that filibustering judges is not really an option except in the most extreme circumstances (such as ethical misconduct).

Obama's judges are safe and sound.

As for the Caps, I'm a Philly guy, but I'll admit, I like seeing at least ONE team in this town providing some excitement. Go Caps.


Specter and Lieberman swap?: Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said about Specter's switch, "The danger of that for the country is that there won't automatically be an ability to restrain the excess that is typically associated with big majorities and single-party rule." I'm sure he was just as worried when the GOP ruled both the White House and Congress. Any chance that the new balance will move Sen. Lieberman from being a de facto to de jure Republican? He actively campained for Sen. McCain, but I'm not sure about his votes in Congress.

Paul Kane: You guys really gotta get over the Lieberman thing. Sorry for assuming you're a lefty and my apologies if you're not. But Lieberman's vote was essential to passing the stimulus, it will be essential to passing health-care reform. He's a huge supporter of cap-and-trade.

I'm not saying you should forgive and forget, and with Lieberman you should always operate from a trust-but-verify M.O.

But he's been highly loyal to Obama so far.


McLean VA: So now would be a good time for Maine to get new Federal facilities and other job-creating pork, don't you think?

Paul Kane: No one else is switching parties, folks, at least not in the Senate.

The ladies from Maine, Snowe and Collins, are secure in their Republican-hood. Collins, for starters, came of age as a GOP staffer on Capitol Hill for then-Sen. William Cohen. That means she comes at things with a slightly more partisan bent than other senators. Former staffers-turned-member of Congress just are a slight bit more partisan than others.

And Snowe, she just derives much of her political existence from being the moderate Republican telling all the boys who run the show that they're doing it all wrong. That's what makes her tick. Put her in the Dem tent, and she's just another Dem.


Beavis 'n' Butthead: They would be Ron Paul guys all the way.

Paul Kane: Hmmmmm, entirely possible.


Arlington, Va.: Dare I ask, is the Republican party even relevant anymore?

Paul Kane: If you ask John Boehner, he almost would answer no, the GOP is not relevant, at least not in a legislative way. He's repeatedly told his House Republican colleagues to not even bother thinking of themselves as legislators and instead to think about life as communicators, that their real job now is to find a message.

And lots of legislative fights -- particularly health care, climate change, eduation -- are now focused almost entirely on the intramural battles between the competing wings of the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill.

But in the Senate guys like Chuck Grassley still hold the cards on determining whether Obama gets a narrow, partisan win, or if he wants to get an 80-vote win.


Boston: Great, now that Senator Eagles (Specter) has moved over to the party in power does this mean that Spygate (Patriots) moves up the Congressional investigation priority list? Can't this man find something better to do with his time?

Paul Kane: Awesome point, awesome point.

Specter was the main interrogator of the NFL over the Patriots blatant cheating scheme earlier this decade, but he had no perch from which to conduct a real investigation. And Pat Leahy, the Judiciary chairman and a Patriots fan by constituent birth-rights, had no interest in letting Arlen run with that issue.

Now maybe we can get Matt Walsh up to the Hill to testify in open about what he saw and how dirty and evil the Patriots really were.


Washington DC: What do you see as the major political challenges lying in wait over the next 100 days?

Paul Kane: The biggest question ahead for Dems is deciding what to do about climate change legislation Henry Waxman and Ed Markey have crafted on the House side.

They say they can move the bill out of committee by Memorial Day, and then it lands in Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer's lap.

There are now more than 50 Midwestern Democrats, not to mention another 40 or so from the South, almost all of whom have deep reservations about the legislation because they fear being accused of raising energy costs (cap-and-tax has a nice rhyme to it and instills fear in Southern Dems) or hurting their own local industries (such as the Rust Belt's coal-burning plants).

With the Senate soooooooo far from bringing anything of substance to the floor there, Chris Van Hollen is urging his fellow House Dem leaders to hold off on pushing a climate bill that might not ultimately get signed into law anyway.

How they handle that issue could define them in 2010.


Leesburg, Va.: Would the GOP actually have to filibuster the Franken seating? Or do they just get to do that thing where they declare a filibuster but don't actually have to do it?

I hate that rule. Make them work for it.

Paul Kane: They would do that thing you hate -- that thing that many of you on the left refuse to believe exists. But it does.


Rolla, MO: Wow, I'm sure this won't get posted, but your bias against Democrats and posters with Democratic leaning questions is really showing lately. Beavis and Butthead - "Hillary Clinton Democrats"? "You lefties"? You're not op-ed.

Paul Kane: You want me to say something bad about Republicans? They're in a pathetic state right now. I'm not biased. It's just that many on the left have a superior air about themselves right now, and I like trying to tweak it. If you return to these particular chats often, you'll find a recurring theme of mine is that I really try to warn the left that they have to avoid becoming nothing more than a liberal version of the right, whose puritanical pursuit of perfection has led to the death of conservatism as we know it.

Watching the death of conservatism has been fascinating, adn there are many on the right who simply refuse to admit their own dittohead role in their demise.

Memo to liberal/progressive/left-wingers: Don't become dot-com dittoheads. If so, your hold on power will be fleeting.


or if he wants to get an 80-vote win: A win is a win is a win.

Thanks to Gertrude Stein. Or was it Shakespeare? A guy who really knew his politics.

After all, who cares about the weepers on the sidelines when you WIN?

Good session today.

Paul Kane: Well, there are moments when getting an overwhelming majority does become a significantly important goal, because it establishes something as a unifying force, something that goes beyond partisan politics and infuses the issue into the public as something that is morally the right thing to do.

The most famous instance of this was Chief Justice Warren's pursuit of 9-0 rulings in Brown v. Board of Education and the subsequent civil rights rulings. Because they were unanimous, it gave the ruling more moral justification.

Hank Paulson thought he was doing that with the effort to pass TARP last fall. Didn't quite work out so well, however.


Fairfax: I recall when Jeffords switched, he got a chairmanship of a committee. Will Specter get anything like that? How will committee assignments be affected, if at all?

Paul Kane: Specter is retaining his seniority as if he'd been elected as a Dem in 1980 (when he actually rode Reagan's coattails into office).

That means that, as he transfers over to the Appropriations Committee as a Dem, he'll be 4th in seniority, behind Inouye, Byrd and Leahy, just ahead of Harkin. He will likely get a plum subcommittee out of this, likely the health subcommittee currently chaired by Harkin, who will then grab another subcommittee of his choosing.

Ultimately, what will probably happen is Dick Durbin, the majority whip, will give up his subcommittee chairmanship on appropriations as an act of loyalty to the caucus. Harry Reid, then majority whip, did this in '01 for Jeffords, allowing Jeffords to grad the environment committee chairmanship.

Leahy will remain Judiciary chairman.


Allentown, PA: "their real job now is to find a message": Shouldn't the Republican Party have been worrying about that somewhat earlier than now? It's very easy for me to tell you what the party is against, and also for what it used to claim to be for, but not what it actually is for/supports now in actual deed (as opposed to speeches on talk radio).

And, as long as its loudest voices are the anti- ones, and as long as it continues to suggest that it primarily supports the more extreme edge that rejects large portions of society based on their beliefs and the terms of their existence - their sexual orientation, their sex, their race, their nationality - it's going to continue to be in trouble.

Paul Kane: Listen, I'm not disagreeing with you. But the previous few years, the Rs on Capitol Hill were kind of in a role where they followed the Bush White House's lead. That's almost always the way it works, just as congressional Dems now are pretty much following Obama's lead.

Just so happens that Bush/Cheney led them into a ditch. Or, more to the point, off a cliff.

They're now at the bottom of that ravine, battered and bruised, but they still have a pulse, and they're now trying to figure their way out.

OK, that metaphor has gone on way too long. Sorry.


Kettering, Ohio: I have been trying to get an answer to this question, but it must be a non-issue. Obama declared last week there is no need to re-open NAFTA, after both he and Hillary campaigned on the promise to re-open it. I thought this would have had labor screaming at the gates.

Paul Kane: I don't know the answer, Kettering, sorry. Trade is the ultimate hot-button issue for Dems, really creates a bright line dividing up the party between the elites who believe in free trade and the manufacturing/trade unions who see it as the demise of the working man.

Wouldn't surprise me if Obama tries to put off any trade issues for a long while.


Fairfax County, Virginia: I'm a Democrat who has always liked Senator Specter though sometimes disagreeing with him and who has followed his serious health struggles with some interest. How is his health now? I don't know how to put this politely, but until this all happened I had not realized that the reelection in 2010 was a practical concern for him.

Paul Kane: Senator Specter is a survivor, through and through. After having brain surgery and bypass surgery in the 1990s, Specter revealed in early '05 that he had stage IV Hodgkin's Disease, the cancerous kind.

He battled through it, getting chemo every other Friday, for 10 months or so. In the process he never missed a key moment in the Senate, overseeing the passage of a bankruptcy bill, helping negotiate a settlement to the judicial filibuster issue, then overseeing two contentious Supreme Court nominations. And he played lots of raquetball along the way.

He had a recurrence last year, and there were moments he didn't look so good, he did chemo again.

He says he's fine, and yesterday he looked as good as I've seen him look in years.


Anonymous: So if Specter does get the Democratic nod and runs against Toomey, how do you see that playing out ?

Paul Kane: Stu Rothenberg had already listed the Pennsylvania race as one of two that were 'leaning Democrat', in a handicapping that came out a week or so ago.

Stu's belief was that there was simply no way for Specter to win the primary, and, just as certainly, almost no way for Toomey to win the general.

So, it now looks that Toomey is the GOP nominee for certain in PA. I asked a GOP strategist yesterday about whether they would try to recruit Tom Ridge or some other moderate R into the race, and the strategist said the same problems faced by Specter would apply to Ridge or any other mod: the #s just aren't there, a conservative like Toomey will win the primary.

So, Republicans are resigned to Toomey. If the mood of the electorate dramatically changes and Toomey puts up a really good fight, then the national GOP will play big in the race. If not, they will walk away from him and Specter will be easily re-elected as a Democrat.


Greenfield, Mass: Good morning Mr. Kane:

Several years back, on the NewsHour, Senators Specter and Leahy were interviewed by Gwen Ifill. I remember not agreeing too much with what Sen. Specter had to say, but also remember the civility and respect the two senators showed each other.

My question is what is your take as to what is Sen. Specter feeling right now> You have covered him for many years and must have a sense of who he is as a man. Probably a bad analogy but -- I have been a Red Sox fan for 59 years. What would it take for me and what would it do to me to abandon Red Sox Nation and become a Yankee fan?


Paul Kane: Red Sox/Yankees isn't the right analogy, because Specter wasn't a member of the Red Sox, he wasn't an ardent member of the conservative wing of the GOP.

He's more like someone who's a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays who, deciding he no longer wanted to live in Canada, decided to move to New York and become a Yankees fan.


Anonymous: When Beavis 'n' Butthead grow up, how sad. I think they are more likely sitting in bar complaining about whoever is president and being "too busy" to vote.

Paul Kane: yeah, entirely possible that they wouldn't vote. They'd probably be sitting at Moe's with Homer and the guys. But I think in '08, they would have eventually gotten into it. So many people did.


Woodbridge, Va.: My question, I think, is a simple one (in more ways than one). How is it moral or ethical or even legal for Sen Specter to run and win election as a Republican then switch mid term to the Democratic Party. At least Sen. Lieberman did this before his election to give everyone a fair opportunity to vote with full knowledge of his position. I am not from Pa., but if I were, I would want to initiate a recall vote to make sure he still represents what his constituency want.

Paul Kane: I thought about this last night -- one of those random thoughts that come to mind while running on the Mall.

The honorable way to do this is the Phil Gramm way, who was a House Dem but then quit altogether and ran as a Republican and won his Senate seat that way. Strom Thurmond did that, too, winning as a write-in candidate, then quitting his seat and running on his own merit in a special election.

But Specter at least gave Republicans 4-plus years of service. The worst at this was Jeffords, who got elected as a Republican in November 2000 and then left the GOP fold seven months later.


Hamilton, Va.: Nice to see you here Paul. Spector's your back yard. Any chance of a primary opponent or have Biden and Rendell put the fix in. Whay can't these guys retire anyway, Spector is what 79?

Paul Kane: The Fix (nod to Cillizza) is in.

Obama's appearance with Specter today was that move that solidified support behind him. The opposition is melting away. specter will have to do a listening tour or something like that, as a Dem, but he'll be Ok in the Dem primary.


Manningtin, W.V.: Do you think that the Air Force One mistake of buzzing New York City would have been covered differently if it had happened when Bush was president? I think that the media would of framed it as another indication of how out of touch Bush was and how his political appointees were all incompetent. For Obama, it is a non-story.

Paul Kane: Wow, did you watch the Daily Show the other night? Stewart lit into the Obama folks. He was brutal on them. I think this story was covered that way in NYC.


Northern Virginia: Paul, I am a grassroots Obama supporter in northern Virginia who worked hard to put the guy into office. Believe me, the agitated voices from the left who occasionally write into these chats really are not reflecting Democratic activists like me. As far as we are concerned, fussing about our friend Joe Lieberman is so 2008. Forget about it. Imagine if we didn't have his vote now. No stimulus bill, just for starters.

There is a Chicago-style, get things done, mood in the grassroots right now, as far as I can tell. With all that's happening, we're all about the pragmatist, no drama approach, believe me.

Paul Kane: Interesting point from a NoVa voter for Obama. Wonder how many out there agree.


Boston : It's one thing to call liberals names...we've gotten it for 30 years and no one cares anymore. It is quite another to call the NFL's team of the decade "Cheaters." Your Eagles got smoked fair and square. Anyway, I thought we liked to look forward and not behind?

Paul Kane: I'm all about truth, justice and the American way. Actually, you know, since the Phillies won it all last year, I've kind of lost my intense anger. I'm just a happier person, all in all.

PS -- why do so many of you accuse me of calling liberals 'names'? I use left-wing, right-wing, lefty, righty, all the time. I don't think it's name calling. Anwyway, I gotta run now.


Paul Kane: OK folks, loved that chat. Good times. I gotta go now, I'll see you next Thursday at my regularly scheduled Live Online politics discussion. Don't think it will be as dramatic as this one, with a party changer and all that. But it will be fun. See you then. --pk


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