Washington — Veteran Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched parties Tuesday with a suddenness that seemed to stun the Senate, a moderate’s defection that pushed Democrats to within a vote of the 60 needed to overcome filibusters and enact President Barack Obama’s top legislative priorities.
Specter, 79 and seeking a sixth term in 2010, conceded bluntly that his chances of winning a Pennsylvania Republican primary next year were bleak in a party grown increasingly conservative. But he cast his decision as one of principle, rather than fueled by political ambition as spurned GOP leaders alleged.
“I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party,” he said at a news conference. He added, “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”
Not long after Specter met privately with Republican senators to explain his decision, the party’s leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, said the switch posed a “threat to the country.” The issue, he said, “really relates to ... whether or not in the United States of America our people want the majority party to have whatever it wants, without restraint, without a check or balance.”
As a result of last fall’s elections, Democrats control the White House and have a large majority in the House. Specter’s switch leaves them with 59 Senate seats. Democrat Al Franken is ahead in a marathon recount in Minnesota. If he ultimately defeats Republican Norm Coleman, he would become the party’s 60th vote — the number needed to overcome a filibuster that might otherwise block legislation.