Specter of His Former Self

Smart legal mind failed to get it all in writing

Uh-oh, Arlen, looks like you should have taken Beyonce's advice: before you made your big switch, you should have gotten a ring on it from Harry Reid.  

One week after making his move to the Democratic Party, Specter finds his 29 years of seniority have been flushed down the drain

Specter will be the very last to speak when the Judiciary Committee questions President Barack Obama's yet-to-be-named nominee to replace Justice David Souter — after even Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who has been a senator for all of four months.

In fact, only two of the 18 other senators on the committee have been in the upper house longer than Specter — and he has been in the Senate longer than seven other committee members put together.

And, by voice vote, he lost his seniority on all other committees as well. 

Meanwhile, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that Specter's future seniority will be determined by the Democratic Caucus -- in the next Congress. That means the veteran senator will be the low man on the totem pole for some 16 months. There seems to be some disagreement -- or confusion -- over what was promised when Specter made his move.

One would think that a former Philadelphia district attorney -- to say nothing of a near-three-decade senator -- would have been smart enough to get certain commitments in writing -- or whatever the equivalent is in the Senate. 

But Specter's real mistake was in the timing of his ship-jumping.

Had he switched to the Democratic Party right after the election (as Sen. Richard Shelby and several other House Democrats did to the GOP in 1994) -- or right after the Alaska seat was determined, he would have had peak bargaining power. Democrats would never have dreamed that the Coleman-Franken case would go on forever. They would have had every belief that the 60th vote was in the palm of their hand. Specter would have forced immediate concessions from them -- including the protection of his seniority. Indeed, were all the bargaining going on before the new Senate was sworn in, Specter could have negotiated a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chairmanship -- at the very least.

Of course, Jim Jeffords's switch in May, 2001 flipped control of the Senate, so, again, he was able to protect his seniority and committee positions. After the 2006 election, even though many Democrats didn't exactly like Joe Lieberman for his various acts of apostasy, they needed his vote. He promised to caucus with them -- and he kept his seniority and Homeland Security committee chairmanship. 

Specter, instead, is something akin to a man without a country: his big mouth has already convinced his "fellow" Democrats that they can't depend upon him  for automatic "60th vote" filibuster-breakers. He's also irritated them with his statement that Minnesota courts should "do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner" over Al Franken in that contested seat. Perhaps Reid is trying to elicit more party loyalty from Specter -- and nudge him into voting the preferred way. 

On Thursday afternoon, however, Specter was given a chairmanship on the Subcommittee on Drugs & Crime. That may placate him in the short-term -- and help Reid save a bit of face too. Beyond that, though, both Specter and Democrats are regretting not getting a clear-cut deal in writing that makes obvious what "loyalty" might be expected to the new party, what promises must be honored, etc.

And so, it's bruised feelings on both sides for quite a while.    

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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