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Independent-Minded Sen. Specter Switches Parties

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

This morning, President Obama welcomed Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter to the White House and to the Democratic Party. Mr. Obama says hes thrilled by Specters surprise announcement yesterday that hes abandoning the Republican Party after 43 years.

President BARACK OBAMA: I know that the decision Senator Specter made yesterday wasnt easy. It required long and careful consideration, and it required courage. But I know that it also reflects an independence that has been the hallmark of Arlen Specters career since the days he arrived in Washington.

MONTAGNE: If Minnesota Democrat Al Frankens victory in a statewide recount stands, Specter would give Democrats the 60 votes they need to head off Republican filibusters. NPRs David Welna reports on a defection that has some Republicans very worried.

DAVID WELNA: In his 79 years, Senator Arlen Specter has survived brain surgery, two bouts with cancer and five U.S. Senate races. But he told reporters he concluded over the weekend that a Pennsylvania Republican Party thats lost hundreds of thousands of moderates to the Democratic Party would not return him to the Senate for a sixth term next year.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Democrat, Pennsylvania): The prospects for winning a Republican primary are bleak. I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United State Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.

WELNA: So Specter decided to cross the aisle and run next year as a Democrat. He was asked yesterday whether he was putting personal ambition ahead of principles.

Sen. SPECTER: No, Im putting principle at the top of the list. The principles that I subscribe to are my independence, which I will retain regardless of party label. I believe that I have a great deal to offer in terms of continuing service. Im full of vim, vigor and vitality.

WELNA: Specter also has a long history of bucking his party to vote with Democrats, from opposing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork decades ago to being one of just three Republicans to vote for the recent economic stimulus package. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin says Specters switch comes as no big surprise.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): Let me put it this way: Im surprised it happened this quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. HARKIN: I thought it might have to germinate a little bit longer, but this is fine.

WELNA: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he and Specter had been discussing a party switch for three years, talks that grew much more intense over the past three weeks. Reid says his policy was to keep those talks secret.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): There isnt a single member of my caucus that knew how far along I had gotten with Senator Specter.

WELNA: Specters defection could make it much harder for Republicans to block the Democratic agenda in the Senate, especially if Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is seated. Gleeful Democrats say their prospects of passing major legislation on health care and climate change have now improved. Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, herself a moderate, worries her party is headed for further losses.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): The statements that are coming nationally from the Republican Party, I mea, I think it just helps to nurture a culture of exclusion and alienation. And I really think this is a time for the Republican Party to reevaluate and redefine, you know, the party.

WELNA: Even some deeply conservative Republicans were shaken by Specters departure. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham says his party needs to be more tolerant of ideological diversity.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): You know, Im a right-of-center guy, and I want a right-of-center agenda, but ideological purity is not going to win the day for either party. So Im looking for a balanced party.

WELNA: But Texas Republican John Cornyn, who leads the campaign to pick up more Senate seats, is now ready to back conservative Pat Toomey, a former Congressman who almost beat Specter in the GOP Primary five years ago.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): If Congressman Toomey is a Republican nominee in Pennsylvania, well support him whole heartedly and do our best to win that seat.

WELNA: Specter, for his part, now counts President Obama among his supporters. He says the president told him that he would campaign for him in Pennsylvania.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.

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