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Jumping ship

Politics | Five-term Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announces he's switching parties

With a filibuster-proof majority on the line, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has announced his plan to jump the GOP ship and join the Democrats. The move will boost the veteran lawmaker's chances of winning re-election next year. And if comedian-turned-politician Al Franken, a Democrat, wins his own hotly contested election battle against Republican Norm Coleman in Minnesota, the pair will virtually seal off the Senate against GOP opposition, and hand the Obama administration a blank legislative check in the Senate chamber.

"I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans," said Specter, 79, in a statement posted on a website devoted to Pennsylvania politics and confirmed by his office.

Specter was facing a tough re-election battle in his home state in 2010, having first to confront a conservative challenge in the Republican primary before advancing to a general election campaign against a Democrat in an increasingly Democratic state.

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Republicans said Specter's defection was motivated by ambition, not principle. At the very least he does not appear to be motivated by the opinion of the constituents who have kept him in office for nearly three decades: In his statement Specter said, "I am unwilling to have my 29-year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate."

The five-term senator has called himself a moderate Republican but has often sided with Democrats in recent years. In 1997 he voted against the fiscal year 1998 GOP budget, but the following year voted to maintain and enforce spending caps in the future. In 2005 Specter voted yes on $40 billion in reduced federal spending, but then in 2007 voted no on a bill that would have reduced federal spending by rating the effectiveness of various government programs.

Specter favors individual gun ownership and is pro-capital punishment. He has supported school choice programs, such as the Washington, D.C., school voucher program, but steers down the middle of the stream on other issues of importance to conservatives, such as federal funding for health care and privatizing social security.

Liberal groups such as the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Human Rights Campaign (a gay rights organization) have awarded Specter low- to middling ratings on issues such as same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and flag desecration. On gay marriage in particular, Specter's voting record seems to reflect a leftward trend. In 1996 he voted yes on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In 2004 he stated that he opposed gay marriage but supported civil unions. Then, two years later, he voted no on a constitutional same-sex marriage ban.

On abortion, the National Right to Life Committee in 2006 gave Specter a rating of zero percent because of his unflagging support for Roe v. Wade. Specter voted in favor of bans on partial-birth abortion in 1999 and 2003, along with 46 other Republicans and 17 Democrats. Still, he has consistently opposed parental involvement in the abortion decisions of minor girls. In 2006 he voted no on a bill that would have required notifying the parents of minor girls who traveled out of state to obtain abortions. Two years later he voted no on prohibiting abortion-seeking minors from traveling across state lines. On other bioethics issues such as stem cells and human cloning, Specter has toed the liberal line.

Several officials who were not authorized to disclose details told reporters that secret talks between Specter, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and other key Democratic leaders preceded Specter's decision to switch parties. Just over six months ago, Obama and Biden were Specter's legislative colleagues, with Obama a comparative babe in the congressional woods having joined the senate, his first federal office, only three years before.

According to a White House official, Obama called Specter almost immediately after he was informed of the decision to say the Democratic Party was "thrilled to have you."

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