By Dan Froomkin
11:45 AM ET, 04/29/2009
"I'm thrilled to have Arlen in the Democratic caucus," President Obama said this morning as he stood alongside Arlen Specter, the formerly Republican senator who suddenly declared himself to be a Democrat yesterday.
Obama has reason to be delighted. Specter's defection means that Republicans will almost certainly lose their ability to casually threaten to filibuster anything that displeases them. It is also another sign that the GOP in the age of Obama has moved so far to the right that it is fast becoming a regional party with a dwindling national foothold.
But it also calls attention to the fact that Obama's ostensibly Democratic ruling coalition now includes a good number of members who in ordinary times would be called Republicans.
Specter joins several other so-called moderate senators including Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu and several others who take center-right positions on many issues on Obama's agenda. "I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture," Specter said in his statement yesterday.
And one must also remember the circumstances. While its repercussions will be profound, Specter's move was not so much an act of great philosophical courage as a desperate attempt to save his own political skin -- faced as he was with the near certainty that he would have lost a Republican primary battle in Pennsylvania.
Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "With a beaming Obama standing at his side, Specter said: 'I think that I can be of assistance to you, Mr. President....There are a lot of big issues we're tackling now that I've been deeply involved in.'..
"'I don't expect Arlen to be a rubber stamp,' Obama said. 'In fact, I'd like to think that Arlen's decision reflects recognition that this administration is open to many different ideas and many different points of view.'"
Paul Kane, Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "The addition of Specter to their ranks, coupled with the likelihood that the Minnesota Supreme Court will name Al Franken the winner of that state's disputed Senate race in the coming months, means that Democrats are all but certain to control a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the chamber for the first time in about 30 years....
"Republicans warned yesterday that such a majority would give Obama almost unfettered control over the federal government. But Specter vowed to maintain his current policy positions -- including opposition to a labor organizing bill and to the nominee Obama has tapped to run the key legal counsel unit at the Justice Department....
"Specter received his own final poll Friday, an assessment he called 'bleak.' He ultimately chose to cast his lot with Democrats, he said in a news conference yesterday, because 'I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.'"
Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Specter's decision provides further evidence that the party is continuing to contract, especially outside the South. Northeastern Republicans have gone from an endangered species to nearly extinct. Obama's victory in Pennsylvania in November was due in part to a sizeable shift in party registration toward the Democrats. Republicans have lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the past two elections. That is no way to build a national party.
"The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party's problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily to their present state of affairs. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama's opening months on the Republican Party."
Michael D. Shear writes for the Washington Post that Obama initially waved off a phone call from Specter yesterday morning, until he was given a note explaining the reason for the call. "'Obama's eyes got very wide,' recalled [a] top adviser. 'Get him back on the phone.'"
Obama had apparently not been wooing Specter -- but Vice President Biden had. "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."
Doyle McManus writes in his Los Angeles Times column about Specter: "Conservatives dubbed him a RINO: Republican In Name Only. Now he has crossed the aisle to join the Democratic majority, but Specter acknowledged Tuesday that he'll be something of a DINO."