Some Thoughts on Specter

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So, what brought Arlen Specter to this point? The wooing started about five years ago. In brief conversations on the Senate floor or at the gym, Reid would remind Specter of the opportunities that could be his if he joined the Dems – the same way he had Jim Jeffords and John McCain, who once briefly flirted with the idea of switching sides, and plans to continue with Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (both of whom admit to being courted but both say they are resolved to remain Republican). The pressure picked up a notch after the 2008 elections that left the Dems so tantalizingly close to a super majority – prompting Reid to hold a “handful” of conversations in the last few months with Specter, a senior Democratic aide said.

At the same time, Specter had watched with dismay as 161,000 Pennsylvanian Republicans, essentially his base, switched their registration en masse in order to have their voices heard in the April 2008 primary slugfest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Specter had barely squeaked through his 2004 primary, which in Pennsylvania are only open to folks registered with that party. He beat by 17,000 conservative Republican Rep. Pat Toomey, who went on to become the head of the anti-tax group, Club for Growth. Toomey was gearing up for a rematch and Specter suspected this time he might not prevail.

Though some public polls showed him trailing Toomey by more than 20 percentage points, Specter wanted to see for himself. So he commissioned a private poll and went home to speak in person with his core base supporters. The anecdotal evidence discouraged Specter but it was the results of his private poll that prompted last weekend’s consultations with family and close aides. The 79-year-old emerged Monday with a decision. He returned to Washington and beelined for the Senate floor, informing Reid’s staff he wanted to talk. He sat there, on the Democratic side of the Senate chamber, for nearly 30 minutes waiting and when Reid showed up Specter informed the majority leader that he was considering switching sides. Reid walked Specter to his offices off the floor and the deal – a handshake after five years of barter – took mere minutes to complete: Specter gets Reid’s endorsement and the president’s and retains his seniority. Top Senate Dems were alerted Monday night and a phone call from the president sealed the deal Tuesday morning less than an hour before the news broke.

There was some debate, says John Ullyot, a Republican strategist who worked for Specter for three years, about when to pull the trigger. Specter “wanted to do it ASAP. Others argued for later in the year — September or October — and wait and see if he could move up in polls against Toomey. But he knows the state well enough that with his anecdotal evidence and polling data, he wanted to do it ASAP and get it out of the way so can come in from a position of relative strength.”

And from this point they go where? For the most part Dems have been downplaying the significance of the switch. Reid yesterday bent over backwards to say that this doesn’t mean that he won’t have to work with the GOP:

Democrats and Republicans must still work together to help our economy develop and save jobs. Democrats and Republicans must work together to help hard working families keep their homes. Democrats and Republicans must still work together to make health care more affordable, invest in renewable energy and help all people in America to get an education. Democrats and Republicans must still work together to ensure troops have the resources they need to more effectively fight in the middle east and around the world. But there is a lot of work to do. I welcome Senator Specter’s help in that work. But it doesn’t lessen the need for cooperation and corroboration with all members of the senate. I had a conversation with Senator McConnell earlier today and told him I would continue to work to allow a debate on amendments, as I have done this Congress. This is not any time to gloat or give high-fives but a time to consider a person who took an extremely difficult step to return to the party where he started.

In fact, yesterday I was hard pressed to find a Senate Dem that considered Specter’s move a game changer. Claire McCaskill said the image of 60 “is easily overblown to a scale of three, four times reality.” Ben Nelson was quick to note that he’s still probably more conservative than Specter. Schumer probably said it best: “It’s still not going to be easy, this is a bold, comprehensive agenda but doing the filibuster at every whim to block us is not there and that makes legislating a lot easier.”

In the grand scheme of things, Specter’s defection will not change much the calculus of Obama’s big-ticket items such as health care, green jobs and the budget. What it will change, though, is the daily grind. Since the Dems took control of the Senate in January 2007 a whopping 158 motions for cloture have been filed. Though many of that number were eventually withdrawn, the GOP has succeeded in gumming up the Senate’s procedural cogs. Assuming Franken is seated and the 60 votes materialize the biggest change will simply be expediency on the Senate floor. The debates will not be any less fiery and moderates must still be convinced, but it will happen at a much quicker pace.