- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday gave Sen. Arlen Specter the chairmanship of a key Judiciary subcommittee, pacifying the veteran Pennsylvania lawmaker after his shaky start as the chambers newest Democrat.

In another reversal of fortune, Mr. Specter’s prospects for re-election as a Democrat in 2010 improved slightly when Republican heavyweight Tom Ridge announced he would not enter the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Specter, 79, switched parties last week after 28 years as a Republican senator. He thought it would help his quest for re-election but suffered an almost immediate setback when Senate Democrats voted Tuesday to strip him of his prized seniority on committees.

Mr. Specter, who insisted he had an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to preserve his seniority, then got the chairmanship of the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs as an apparent consolation prize.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin volunteered to give up the chairmanship to Mr. Specter in a deal brokered with Mr. Reid and Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Durbin said he made the offer the night Mr. Specter announced he was switching parties and not to smooth over the seniority flap.

“I raised this issue long before feathers were ruffled,” Mr. Durbin told reporters at the Capitol.

“The question of seniority is something that is going to be taken up at a later time. In the meantime, I want Senator Specter to feel welcome in our caucus and have an opportunity to use his talents.”

Mr. Specter previously presided as the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican and held high seniority on Senate Appropriations and Veterans’ Affairs committees. In his re-election campaign, he was expected to argue that his seniority makes him indispensable to Pennsylvania voters.

Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he did not double-cross Mr. Specter and the seniority issue will be settled by the caucus in 2011.

“I’m not talking any more about it,” Mr. Reid said. “I’ve explained and re-explained and the re-explaining is over with.”

Mr. Specter’s first week on the other side of the aisle included voting against President Obama’s plan to help struggling homeowners by allowing bankruptcy judges to lower their mortgage payments.

He also reportedly riled Democrats by saying he supports Republican Norm Coleman over Democrat Al Franken in Minnesota’s contested senate race.

As a Republican, Mr. Specter often ran afoul of party leadership. Some of his problems with Pennsylvania Republicans stemmed from his vote this year for Mr. Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill.

The announcement from Mr. Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and the first Homeland Security secretary, is good news for Mr. Specter’s re-election bid but he is far from out of the woods.

Polls showing the centrist Mr. Specter getting beaten in a Republican primary against conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey convinced the longtime senator to rebrand himself a Democrat.

Other polls showed him trailing as a Democrat in a general election match-up against Mr. Ridge, who was expected to easily defeat Mr. Toomey in the primary. With Mr. Ridge out, Mr. Specter has a better chance to win in a general election facing Mr. Toomey.

A bigger problem for Mr. Specter could be a Democratic primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania. The former Navy vice admiral says he’s seriously considering a run.

Mr. Sestak said he’s watching Mr. Specter closely to see if he is the best Democrat for Pennsylvania. Several of Mr. Specter’s latest moves have caused concern, Mr. Sestak has said, including the senator’s vote against Mr. Obama’s budget.

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