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And Then There Was One: Specter’s Democratic Party Conversion

Sen. Arlen Specter, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, has converted — to the Democratic Party.

The longtime Pennsylvania senator’s surprise move will give Democrats 60 votes in the Senate, assuming that Al Franken wins his ongoing court case in Minnesota and is seated, which would give Senate Democrats the power to stop filibusters.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Specter, who said he plans to run in 2010 as a Democrat, wrote:

Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. 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.

…I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.

Specter was one of three Republicans who voted for President Obama’s economic recovery package. The president reportedly welcomed Specter to the Democratic Party in a phone call Tuesday morning. In March, the Forward ran a profile of Specter and Eric Cantor, a Virginia congressman who will now be the lone Jewish Republican in Congress. J.J. Goldberg’s story summed up Specter thusly: “Elected to the Senate in 1980, he is a strong defender of abortion rights and church-state separation. He has been independent on Jewish issues, too, and conducted his own personal diplomacy with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and later with the Assads in Syria, impervious to protests from Jewish activists and the Bush White House.”

Republicans were apparently taken by surprise by Specter’s switch, while Democrats are predictably jubilant.

“It helps on everything,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, told The New York Times. “This is a substantial change.”

As he was never a lock-step member of the Republican caucus, Specter cautioned that he would not become an automatic Democratic vote in the Senate, either:

Whatever my party affiliation, I will continue to be guided by President Kennedy’s statement that sometimes Party asks too much. When it does, I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America.

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