In a stunning development, today Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter has left Republican Party and joined the Democratic caucus. Should Al Franken be seated as the Senator from Minnesota, the Democrats will have reached a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats.
At a mid-day press conference, the newly minted Democratic Senator announced the switch and said that the Republican Party had drifted too far to the right and left him to room to remain in the party. He also said that he would like to continue his service in the Senate, and that he will run as a Democratic after a poll showed him having no chance in the Republican Primary.
In response, Republic Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said that Specter’s switch is “threatening to the nation.” Fellow Senator John Cornyn said that Specter’s switch was nothing but politics.
The implication for President Barack Obama’s agenda is huge. Last week, it was revealed that Democrats, then with 57 seats in the Senate, planned to use an arcane procedure known as “reconciliation” to pass a health care bill by mid-October. The President called the presence of the procedure an insurance policy against Republican filibusters. Democrats need 60 seats to prevent filibusters by the Republican minority.
Although Specter said that he will not be an “automatic 60th vote” for Democrats, making clear, for example, that he opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, the vote puts Democrats in a much better position to pass the President’s agenda. Specter also revealed that he had been courted for several months by prominent Democrats including Vice President Joe Biden and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. Today, he received a congratulatory phone call from the President of the United States himself.
The switch leaves the Senate Republican Caucus at 40 seats, the official Democratic caucus at 57 seats with two independents and one unresolved seat in Minnesota. However, the move effectively gives Democrats a working super-majority.