WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's announcement Tuesday that he is switching to the Democratic Party will probably rob Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of his strongest tool — the filibuster.
Over the years, McConnell has effectively killed hundreds of measures by filibustering — blocking legislation by defeating efforts to cut off debate. In the process, the Kentucky senator earned a reputation as a shrewd tactician and a strong political force.
However, if Minnesota Democrat Al Franken is seated, Specter's defection will give Democrats a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority and increase the likelihood that much of President Barack Obama's agenda will fast-track through Congress.
"Well, obviously, we are not happy that Senator Specter has decided to become a Democrat," McConnell said Tuesday. "He visited with me in my office late yesterday afternoon and told me quite candidly that he'd been informed by his pollster that it would be impossible for him to be re-elected in Pennsylvania as a Republican because he could not win the primary; and he was also informed by his pollster that he could not get elected as an independent, and indicated that he had decided to become a Democrat. What this means, if we are not successful in Minnesota, as you know, is that the Democrats, at least on paper, will have 60 votes."
Fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who like Specter is facing a tough re-election bid, was more blunt.
"I am disappointed, but not surprised, by Senator Specter's self-serving decision to switch parties at a time when his vote is so important to maintaining some balance of power here in Washington," Bunning said. "The Senate Republican leadership's coddling of Senator Specter shows just how far the Republican Party has lost its way.
"Senator Specter has never been a reliable voice for the conservative values that Republicans like myself have spent our lives fighting for, and I look forward to seeing him defeated in 2010," Bunning said.
Specter's defection is just the latest in a series of disappointing legislative and political setbacks for McConnell, the titular head of a party that has faced bruising losses in recent elections. Republicans were barely clinging to the 41 seats needed to filibuster legislation they don't like, and although Specter's party switch is no guarantee that he'll consistently vote with his new party's block, the Pennsylvania senator will hold considerable sway as part of a small group of centrist Democrats.
McConnell will have to fight to keep Specter and moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine from joining Democrats on environmental protection measures, broadening health care coverage and stem cell research.
"Now (McConnell's) got 40 seats, he's got no cushion," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report. "They're going to have to woo conservative Democrats and Specter once they get over being furious with him. McConnell's biggest problem, and the Republican leaders in general, is the psychological blow. The party is down already. It's just one more kick in the teeth."
Then there is the looming 2010 election cycle, a period that political experts say might prove rocky for the GOP.
"Electorally, their next problem in the next cycle and future cycles if they want to get back into the majority is to expand their coalition, because their base is getting too small," said Randall Strahan, professor of political science at Emory University and the author of Leading Representatives: The Agency of Leaders in the Politics of the U.S. House.
So far, several key Republican senators, including Florida's Mel Martinez, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, have announced that they will not seek re-election in 2010.
Bunning, who has publicly sparred with both McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the 2010 election cycle.
One of the biggest challenges McConnell might face could come from members of his own party, who, after weathering several cycles of blistering losses and the sting of Specter's defection, might feel less inclined to shift perspectives and tactics, Duffy said.
"Today, Sen. Arlen Specter switched his party affiliation to the Democrat Party. I hope you will join me in saying 'good riddance,'" Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote in an e-mail to members on Tuesday.
In order to regroup, McConnell and Republican leaders will have to keep the caucus focused on electoral goals, ramp up fund-raising efforts, and recruit and support strong candidates for 2010 races.
"You've got to get all the players in the room, and right now the party doesn't have a strong unifying voice," Duffy said. "There's no one like a Reagan or even Bush who as far as the Republican Party goes can get everyone in a room. To an outsider, they look like a more marginally regionalized party."