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A Liberal Democrat Returns to the Fold

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Posted on The Nation on 04/28/2009 @ 11:41am

Arlen Specter started his political life as a liberal Democrat.

And now the senior senator from Pennsylvania is returning to the fold.

Specter, who has served five terms in the Senate as the last of the old-school Rockefeller Republicans, has finally given up on his long, fruitless quest to revive the spirit of east-coast liberalism within what has become a hard-right party.

"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," the senator explained in a statement announcing his decision to leave the GOP fold. "Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, is now U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania.

The big news, of course, is that with Specter's move Democrats will have 59 members in their Senate caucus (57 Democrats and independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut). And the prospect that Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Al Franken will soon take the seat he won in last fall's Minnesota voting means that the Specter switch should give the Democrats the 60 seats they need to avert GPO filibusters of legislation and appointments.

For the Obama administration and the Democrats, Specter party switch is the most dramatic development since the election.

The senator's motivations for switching are no mystery.

Specter, who was a liberal Democratic lawyer in Phildelphia in the 1960s before accepting a GOP nomination for district attorney as part of a reform-movement battle to break the city's Democratic machine, has long been the most left-leaning member of the Republican caucus in the chamber. He was targeted for defeat by conservatives -- led by the Wall Street-funded Club for Growth -- in 2004. President Bush and other key Republicans defended him that year, not out of love for Specter but because they did not want to lose a seat representing a blue state.

After he backed the economic stimulus plan that all House Republicans and most Senate Republicans opposed, Specter became the top target of the Republican right. Former Congressman Pat Toomey, who narrowly lost the 2004 Pennsylvania primary to Specter, announced that he would again challenge the senator in 2010; and GOP chair Michael Steele sent conflicting signals about whether the incumbent would have the party's support next year.

At the same time, top Democrats -- led by Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator from neighboring Delaware, and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a former Democratic National Committee chair -- have been actively lobbying Specter to change his party affiliation.

Specter's first test will come on the issue of the Employee Free Choice Act. Despite a history of working closely with labor -- and enjoying union backing in key contests -- the Pennsylvania senator sided with Republicans in saying he would support a filibuster to block the pro-labor legislation.

Presumably, the party switch will free Specter from the pressure to maintain his credibility -- and fund-raising prospects with big business interests -- by blocking labor law reforms that he knows are necessary. The senator says now that his position on EFCA is unchanged, but don't take him too seriously.

Watch for the newest Democrat to be at the center of a move to tinker with the measure just enough to secure not just his vote but that of straying Democratic senators such as Arkansan Blanche Lincoln. (In fact, while Specter will need some cover for an EFCA switch, it will undoubtedly be easier to bring him over than Lincoln.)

And watch for Specter to start flying his liberal flag on a number of high-profile issues.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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