WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter will switch parties and run for re-election in November as a Democrat, he announced Tuesday, a decision that could have wide-ranging consequences for the Senate and President Barack Obama's agenda.
"Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right," Specter said in a statement. "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."
The move brings Democrats to 59 seats in the Senate, just one shy of the 60 they need to exert filibuster-proof control over the chamber. In Minnesota, Democrat Al Franken holds a 312- vote lead over Republican former Sen. Norm Coleman, but Coleman has appealed the result to the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case are expected to begin in June.
Specter's announcement, coming on the eve of Obama's 100th day in office, sent shock waves through the political world.
Obama was informed of the decision at 10:30 a.m. during his daily economic briefing. Minutes later he spoke to Specter by phone, telling the Pennsylvanian "you have my full support" and adding "we are thrilled to have you."
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid praised Specter's willingness to "work in a bipartisan manner, put people over party, and do what is right for Pennsylvanians and all Americans."
The move was the latest blow to an already staggering GOP, and Republicans immediately sought to cast Specter's move as nothing more than the politics of self-preservation. "Let's be honest — Sen. Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind," said Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. "He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record."
Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine called Specter's decision "devastating news" for Republicans, particularly Northeastern Republicans who have almost vanished in the Senate over the last decade. "Many Republicans feel alienated and disaffected from the party," Snowe said. "It just helps nourish a culture of exclusion and alienation."
Snowe recalled former Sen. James Jeffords' switch from being a Republican to an independent caucusing with Democrats in 2001, a more dramatic switch that flipped power from Republicans to Democrats in the chamber. "Frankly, the party never woke up from that event," she said.