Republican Sen. Arlen Specter said Tuesday he is changing political parties and will seek re-election to his sixth term next year as a Democrat, further eroding Republicans’ power in Washington.
Mr. Specter, of Pennsylvania, said the Republican Party has “moved far to the right” and he now finds his political philosophy “more in line with Democrats.”
“I have been a Republican since 1966,” Mr. Specter said. “I have been working extremely hard for the party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.”
His switch gives Democrats 59 seats in the Senate, one shy of the number needed to prevent Republicans from being able to filibuster. And the move will only intensify the brutal legal battle in Minnesota, where Democrat Al Franken leads Sen. Norm Coleman in the ballot count from last November’s election but where Mr. Coleman is pursuing legal challenges to the count.
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Polls in Pennsylvania showed Mr. Specter, 79, trailing badly Republican Pat Toomey in a primary next year, and Mr. Specter barely beat Mr. Toomey in a 2004 primary. Democrats welcomed Mr. Specter, but Republicans were enraged, saying he had put his personal ambitions over his principles.
When a reporter shouted a question at President Obama about the newest Democratic senator, the president gave a thumbs up.
Asked if it was good riddance, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, told The Washington Times, “It’s been a pleasure.” Still, he said it’s not clear how damaged Republicans will be.
“On some very partisan issues, it may hurt us,” he said, though he said there are “a dozen Democrats to the right of Specter as it was.”
“I’m not sure its going to be a net negative at the end of the day,” he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Republicans will work to defeat Mr. Specter in next year’s general election.
“He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record,” Mr. Steele said. “Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first.”
The switch is a major coup for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who had been talking with Mr. Specter for months about switching parties.
A month ago, Mr. Reid told reporters it seemed unlikely after Mr. Specter announced he would oppose a union-backed bill known as card-check, which would make it easier to form a union. But on Tuesday Mr. Reid said Mr. Specter’s bipartisan approach is welcome.
Mr. Specter has been both critical ally and impossible roadblock for his party.
Earlier this year he and two other Republican senators voted to support President Obama’s stimulus spending bill, enraging some in his party.
But as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he helped shepherd both Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. through the confirmation process.
Mr. Specter said the Republican Party has changed since he first won his Senate seat nearly 30 years ago.
“Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right,” Mr. Specter also said. “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.”
The last time a party held a filibuster-proof majority was in 1977 and 1978, when Democrats held 61 seats.
Mr. Specter’s change could mark the second time this decade Republicans have been undercut by a party switch. Then-Sen. Jim Jeffords’ switch from Republican to independent in 2001 gave Democrats a majority in the chamber.
• Christina Bellantoni and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.