Politico - 34 minutes ago
[T]he Republican National Committee Chairman said it was "not only disrespectful, but downright rude" of Specter to make this decision after the national party made it clear it would stand behind him in a contentious primary fight.
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Arlen Specter abandoned the Republican Party for President Barack Obama's Democrats on Tuesday, putting them within reach of a 60-seat majority that could give them absolute control of the Senate.
SNAP ANALYSIS: Specter defection a sharp blow to Republicans
"This is a painful decision," Specter told reporters of the stunning decision which boosted his 2010 re-election chances to a sixth six-year term by sidestepping a tough challenge in the Republican primary from conservative Pat Toomey.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promptly welcomed Specter, 79, into the ranks of Democrats, who together with him now control 59 seats in the 100-member Senate. Democrats will reach 60 if they hold on to a contested Minnesota Senate race.
A 60-vote majority would be enough to override Republican procedural hurdles and muscle through key parts of Obama's agenda, including measures to provide health insurance to all Americans and combat global warming while moving the nation toward energy independence.
The last time either party held 60 Senate seats was in 1978, when the Democrats had 61. Democrat Al Franken, who won the vote tally in Minnesota, would be the 60th but Republican incumbent Norm Coleman is challenging the count in court.
"Since my election in 1980 ... the Republican Party has moved far to the right," Specter said in a statement explaining his decision. "I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."
KNOWN AS A MODERATE
Specter said in the statement posted on his campaign Web site, "My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I have been for the Republicans."
An administration official said Obama was handed a note during his daily economic briefing at the White House that said Specter would announce he was changing parties.
A few minutes later, the official said Obama reached Specter and told him "you have my full support" and that Democrats were "thrilled to have you."
Specter, who had been one of the Senate's few Republican moderates, had a reputation for crossing the political aisle.
He caught the ire of conservatives in Pennsylvania last February when he was one of three Senate Republicans to vote for Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan.
Senator Olympia Snowe, another Republican moderate, said, "Many Republicans feel alienated and disaffected from the Republican Party," which has been floundering since Democrats last year won the White House and expanded their control of Congress.
Recent polls showed Specter trailing in his bid to win the Republican nomination for re-election and more popular among Democrats than Republicans.
A survey released last month by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found Specter got a thumbs up from 60 percent of Democrats.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a longtime friend of Specter's, said the decision to switch had to be a tough one.
"It had to really tear him up, but he had to face reality," Hatch said. "He has a better chance of winning re-election as a Democrat than a Republican."
Reid said, "I welcome Senator Specter and his moderate voice to our diverse caucus, and to continuing our open and honest debate about the best way to make life better for the American people."
Democrat Robert Byrd, at 91 the oldest member of the Senate, said, "I am delighted to welcome him as a Democratic colleague. Arlen Specter gives our side of the aisle not only a numerical boost, but also an intellectual shot in the arm."
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Specter spoke to McConnell late on Monday and officially informed him on Tuesday about his party switch.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Jeff Mason; editing by John Whitesides and Howard Goller)