There is no question that Senator Arlen Specter’s recent announcement that he is going to run for reelection as a Democrat is significant. The question is: how significant? Politically, it is quite significant and it was not by chance that it occurred on the eve of President Obama’s 100th Day in office. It gives Democrats a victory in that they can build on a public perception that people, even Senators, continue to switch from the GOP to the Democratic Party. And, what I want to focus on here, that it essentially provides the Senate Democrats with 60 votes, creating a filibuster proof majority (yes, to get to 60 votes, Al Franken would have to win in Minnesota and the two independents–Sanders and Lieberman–would have to vote with Democrats.)
The real question in my mind is what will change when it comes to votes on stopping filibusters – or cloture votes if you want to use the arcane parliamentary term. Sure Specter’s switch and the apparent agreement with Democratic Party leaders to maintain his seniority may lead to Senator Specter chairing a committee. But this is just a DC parlor game to try to figure out if he will chair the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee or something else. This is not of the highest significance. Senator Specter didn’t run his committees when the GOP was in control from the far-right to say the least. When he chaired the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds a significant chunk of domestic social spending, he was not always in line with the GOP caucus. So the real significance of the party switch will be the procedural votes, such as cloture, and his interaction with the caucus on strategy.
Let’s first take cloture, this is the big issue in the media. Don’t get me wrong. This is huge, but I went back and looked at the 10 cloture votes the Senate voted on in 2009. Senator Specter voted to end the filibuster, i.e., side with the majority, 9 out of 10 times! So will his party switch really make much of a difference in this area? After all, he voted with the Democrats for cloture basically every time as a Republican.
The real significance of this party switch comes in the form of the Pennsylvania primary voters. The primary voters play a significant role in the actions of politicians. If you don’t believe this, just look no further than the reason Senator Specter switched parties. It was because of the primary voters. Specter said he does not want to be "judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.?? A Rasmussen Reports poll released Friday showed Specter trailing former Rep. Pat Toomey by 21 percentage points while a Quinnipiac poll showed 71 percent of Democrats having a favorable opinion of Specter. Now the key electorate for Specter has switched from the GOP primary voters to the Democratic primary voters. The primary is the first and next election Specter must win, and this is not usually the stomping ground of moderate and independent views. There may not be a democratic primary opponent.
In order for Specter to sway the Democratic primary voters, I would predict that his votes on procedural and support on strategic Democratic issues will have to shift to the left. And although this is inside baseball in DC, it impacts AHAM’s legislative agenda in that Democrats will have a stronger hand in conference committee – sometimes known as the third House of Congress due to its significance. If there is a tough and politically charged issue and the Democrats need to maintain party unity on a conferenced bill that has passed the House and supported by President Obama, it will be increasingly difficult, politically, for Specter to be positioned as being the only person standing in the way of sending the bill down Pennsylvania Avenue to be signed into law by the President, who has agreed to campaign for him.
Senator Specter’s switch is significant in that he will now be focused on his next election and that is by the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania. Specter does not want his future decided by the Pennsylvania GOP primary voters, but it will be decided now by the Pennsylvania Democratic voters.