Senate Democrats halted voting Tuesday afternoon to help their newest convert, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, attend fundraisers back home with President Obama, as party bigwigs made clear who they back in what's expected to be a brutal Democratic primary.
Despite opening Tuesday's Senate session by criticizing fellow senators for moving too slowly on spending bills, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said there would be no voting that afternoon as Mr. Specter returned to Pennsylvania, where two fundraisers netted about $2.5 million for his re-election bid.
"It's a basic courtesy that we extend to Republicans all the time," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, who said they don't want to force senators into a position where they would have to miss a lot of votes.
But the move didn't sit well with Republicans, who accused Mr. Reid of "doublespeak," or with Rep. Joe Sestak, Mr. Specter's opponent in next year's Democratic primary, who said the treatment exposed Mr. Specter as another Washington insider worried about re-election.
"This gets to a larger issue and why I am running against the establishment's wishes because too often it favors the powerful and well-connected who are also too often rewarded at the cost of those who are at the bottom," the former Navy admiral and two-term congressman said.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, on a conference call arranged by the Republican National Committee to respond to the fundraiser, said it was not standard practice to halt Senate business, but not unprecedented either ? particularly when a presidential visit to a home district is involved.
"I can tell you, I had many a fundraiser where I had to break away and was not covered by my leadership," he said.
At one of the fundraisers, Mr. Specter talked about having the president come campaign: "This is the stuff of politics, and it's indispensable if we are to stay in office."
For his part, Mr. Obama, who had promised his full support in both the primary and general election, praised Mr. Specter for backing the $787 billion stimulus package and said the Republican turned Democrat is a man of action, not ideology.
Mr. Specter has struggled to find a path to re-election in 2010.
He began this year as a Republican but switched parties after it became clear he would lose a Republican primary to former Rep. Pat Toomey. Democratic leaders in Washington welcomed Mr. Specter to their party and pledged support - partly because he represented the critical 60th vote for them in the Senate - but Mr. Sestak decided to buck the establishment and make his challenge.
As complicated as Mr. Specter's re-election prospects are, they're matched by his efforts to conform his positions to his new party.
On Tuesday, speaking before his fundraisers, Mr. Specter told the AFL-CIO convention meeting in Pittsburgh that he would support Democrats' efforts to pass a labor-friendly bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, this year. It's a reversal from April, when even as he switched parties he said he opposed the bill and called it "a bad deal."
"We have pounded out an employees' choice bill which will meet labor's objectives," Mr. Specter said Tuesday.
The bill Democrats are pressing for would not include the procedure called "card check" that would allow unions to form when a majority of workers signed a public document ? the most contentious piece of the legislation. But Mr. Specter said he would support the new version Democrats are pushing, which includes binding arbitration between unions and companies.
Also speaking at the AFL-CIO, Mr. Obama welcomed unions' support for his health care plans.
"Few have fought for this cause harder and few have championed it longer than you, our brothers and sisters in organized labor," the president said.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.