Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania stunned his colleagues today by saying he will switch parties and run for re-election next year as a Democrat. Specter's decision to cross the aisle, coupled with the eventual likely seating of Al Franken in the court-contested Minnesota Senate race, would give Democrats a filibuster-beating 60 votes -- a move that could portend a seismic shift and leave a struggling Republican Party in even more trouble.
But Specter, in a lengthy statement, warned gleeful Democrats not to expect him to always be in their corner. "My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I have been for the Republicans ... I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture," he said in the statement, which was first posted on PoliticsPA.com.
To underscore that point, he said he would not change positions on the so-called card-check bill, where his vote for cloture would presumably allow that stalled legislation to pass.
Senate Majority Leader Reid welcomed the switch, which he had actively sought earlier in the year. "We have not always agreed on every issue, but Senator Specter has shown a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, put people over party, and do what is right for Pennsylvanians and all Americans," Reid said in a statement. He added that he understands Specter will caucus with the Democrats before the election.
President Obama learned of Specter's decision during his daily economic briefing this morning, when an aide slipped him a note reading, "Specter is announcing he is changing parties."
Seven minutes later, at 10:32 a.m., Obama reached Specter by phone and told him, "You have my full support," said a White House aide speaking on background. Obama also said that Democrats were "thrilled to have you."
Democratic sources said Specter informed Senate Majority Leader Reid of his intentions Monday night, but many others from both parties were caught by surprise when the news spread this morning.
"I am shocked, stunned and sickened," said GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, another Senate moderate. Added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: "He switched because he was going to lose. That's why people switch parties, because they are going to lose."
Specter, first elected in 1980, faced a potentially bruising primary battle with former Rep. Pat Toomey, a conservative who narrowly lost the Republican nomination to Specter in 2004. Specter has always had more trouble in primaries than in the general election, so his switch to the Democratic Party makes him a strong favorite for a sixth term.
The party switch marks a full-circle journey for Specter, who became a Republican after serving as a top staffer on the Warren Commission and developing the "single-bullet theory" that helped finger Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman in the assassination of President John Kennedy.
As a Republican, Specter was elected district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965. From the start of his Senate career, he angered conservative Republicans in Pennsylvania. During his first re-election bid, for example, Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh weighed a primary challenge but eventually backed off.
But the party pressure never tamped down his independent streak, just as he said pressure from his new party won't do that now. Specter, 79, has survived two battles with cancer and says he is in good health.