Specter Slowly, Quietly Adjusts

Posted May 20, 2009 at 6:42pm

Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), donning a blue and red tie, took to the chairman’s seat with ease during a hearing of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs on Wednesday.

And rather than flaunt his new subcommittee gavel, recent GOP defector Specter opted to deliver a brief opening statement, thanked his new Democratic colleagues and launched into a two-panel hearing on Medicare fraud.

Such is the newly understated tone of Specter, who last month rocked the Capitol when he announced he was leaving the Republican Party after 28 years to become a Democrat.

“He’s trying to become a Senator, not the guy who just switched parties,— a senior Democratic aide said.

Specter has recently made a series of calculated steps to bring himself into the Democratic fold after an initially awkward transition muddied by his announcement of support for former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) in Minnesota’s slow-going recount battle and defiant declaration that he would “not be an automatic 60th vote— for the Conference.

But since those early days, Specter has shown new loyalty for his Democratic colleagues.

He has indicated his support for a public insurance plan in health care reform, a controversial proposal backed largely by Democrats; he has attended lunch meetings with the newly established Moderate Democrats Working Group; and he apologetically declared that he “conclusively misspoke— when he called for Coleman to be declared the winner in the Minnesota Senate race.

“This is a tough time for Arlen. He’s spent most his whole life in the Republican Party, so this is wrenching him,— said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who shares a close, 25-year relationship with Specter.

Harkin has spoken with Specter almost daily in recent weeks about “card check— legislation that would loosen labor-organizing rules and allow workers to unionize through open-ballot elections.

Though Specter declared his opposition to the bill in March, his discussions with Harkin have breathed new life into the measure and bought him some goodwill among Democrats.

“There’s now an ongoing discussion. There wasn’t before,— the Democratic aide said.

In a climate where Senate Democrats are one Minnesota recount away from a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority, Specter’s more conciliatory tone breeds hope in the caucus.

“Obviously it’s a significant change for Sen. Specter, but it’ll come with time as he votes with us,— Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. “Right now, he’s being his gentlemanly, distinguished self.—

Specter’s homestate colleague, Sen. Bob Casey (D), agreed, noting that Specter’s earlier gaffes and more recent words of support for Democratic priorities are all part of the adjustment process. Specter, facing a difficult GOP primary challenge in 2010, announced his party switch in late April to run as a Democrat.

“I’ve said this all along: When you have a process like this, it unfolds over time,— Casey said.

While Specter and Casey have often been on opposing sides — Specter campaigned against Casey in 2006 — Casey has already carved out a summer of joint appearances to help his colleague win re-election to a sixth term.

Casey has even gone as far as talking to Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), who is considering running against Specter in the Democratic primary, about next year’s race.

“Everyone has to make up their own mind. You can’t be dictated to,— Casey said. “But I have stressed to him that we’ll all be better off if there isn’t a primary.—

As a former Judiciary chairman who led the 2005 and 2006 confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Specter could play a pivotal role in this summer’s debate over President Barack Obama’s first nominee to the Supreme Court. Specter lost his seniority on the full Judiciary panel after his party switch, but was later awarded a subcommittee gavel as a consolation prize.

And as a former prosecutor, Specter is well-suited to lead the Subcommittee on Crime and Drug, considered the most prestigious of the Judiciary subcommittees, because it has jurisdiction over as much as 70 percent of the Justice Department’s budget and is responsible for writing crime and drug sentencing laws.

Specter’s focus now shifts to Pennsylvania and his re-election contest as he prepares for the upcoming Memorial Day break that includes campaign fundraisers on the West Coast and time in the Keystone State. Specter’s colleagues acknowledge that he still has some work to do in proving his loyalties to his new party, but they agree that time is on the 79-year-old Senator’s side.

“Time heals all wounds,— Harkin said of Specter’s early missteps. “Things work out and we’ll all move ahead together.—