Specter's Real Gift to Obama

Washington Matters

Specter's Real Gift to Obama

President Obama woke up to a glorious gift on his 100th day in office -- not the prospect that he could soon have an automatic 60 votes to break GOP filibusters, but the fact that he won't.

The desertion of Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., from the Republican Party will certainly make it easier for Democrats to fend off obstructionist GOP tactics, but Specter's independence -- some call it contrariness -- is bound to be nearly as frustrating to Democratic leaders as it was to his Republican ones. And he demonstrated that on the same day he went to the White House to be welcomed into the party by Obama personally -- voting against the president's budget. Specter objects to inclusion of a provision that could make it possible to pass a health care bill later in the year with a simple majority vote, not the 60 needed to end a filibuster. (Ironically, Specter's switch dramatically lessened the need to rely on the arcane budget maneuver.)

While he's a natural Democrat on most social issues, such as abortion and expansion of many social programs, he's more conservative on economic, tax, business, fiscal issues, foreign policy and even some environmental issues. In fact, according to the American Conservative Union's congressional scorecards, he is now the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, save Ben Nelson of Nebraska. His lifetime rating is far ahead of the next two most conservative Democrats -- Mary Landreiu of Louisiana and Evan Bayh of Indiana.

And the fact is that keeping all 60 votes won't be easy. Democrats will have to work hard to gain consensus on tough issues within a caucus that stretches across the ideological spectrum. The surprise is that this is actually good news for Obama. The best legislation on major issues is usually the legislation that has broad support from different ideological pockets of the country and Congress. Since most Republicans have, at least so far, generally absented themselves from real debate and legislating, conservative perspectives and concerns rarely influence measures as they work their way from inception to Obama's desk. As the newest addition to the party, Specter could change that on some of the most tricky problems facing the country an perhaps help temper the ambitions of Democratic liberals as well.

It's even conceivable, if and when Al Franken is awarded Minnesota's vacant Senate seat and becomes the 60th Democrat, that some Republicans could become more willing negotiating partners. If GOP solidarity can no longer influence events, why not join the process and try to influence emerging law? After all, the bitter partisanship in Washington is as frustrating to many lawmakers as it is to the public. Many Republicans have strong interests and expertise that they want to pursue and exercise. So on a revolving set of issues, it may not just be the usual moderate GOP suspects (pretty much reduced to the stalwart women from Maine, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins), but a Chuck Grassley on taxes, Mike Enzi on health care, John McCain on immigration reform, Lamar Alexander on education and George Voinovich on labor and union issues.

That, too, would be good news for Obama -- the country, actually -- since a fundamental theme of his campaign was to lower the heat of partisanship and ideology, legislate more pragmatically and seek out common ground between the parties rather than focus on differences. If Obama is serious about governing from the middle, Specter could be a hand on the tiller that helps keep him there.

Where is Specter likely to differ with Democrats the most? The businesses committee will be glad to know that he routinely makes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's annual "Spirit of Enterprise" list for voting with the chamber position at least 70% of the time -- something only a small handful of Democrats achieve. While moderate Republicans tend to take a much stronger pro-environment stand than much of the rest of the party, Specter's record is far more mixed -- largely because he is suspicious of the effects legislation on climate change and other issues will have on jobs and the state's coal industry. However, exactly how this will play out is uncertain. Being freed of Republican Party discipline -- he got crosswise with the GOP so often that he nearly lost a chairmanship in 2005 -- could allow Specter to take positions he might otherwise have avoided because he didn't think it was worth the extra heat.

Oddly, in the areas that Specter probably sees eye to eye with Democrats the most -- social issues, civil liberties and civil rights -- his switch is likely to have less impact. Some of the most controversial bills in those areas tend to come from Republicians seeking to restrict existing law, changes that Democrats usually have had no trouble killing off since taking control of the chamber in 2007.

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