Specter’s Switch: The Bigger Picture

April 28, 2009 3:28 p.m.

I’m sure everybody’s excited to read more about Arlen Specter. I know I can’t wait to keep writing about him. But today’s news will have a rather significant impact on a number of the seminal stories and meta-stories that define today’s Washington, and it behooves us all to take stock.

Specter, as we’ve noted a number of times today, could well become the Democrats’ 60th senator. But before that can happen, though, Democrats will need to get Al Franken seated, and today’s move raises the stakes for both sides of that fight. If you thought Norm Coleman and the national Republican party had little incentive to throw in the towel when Franken represented the Democrats’ 59th vote, they have considerably less incentive to call it quits now. If, as is widely presumed, the Minnesota Supreme Court decides in June or July to uphold Franken’s victory, the pressure from Washington will be on Gov. Tim Pawlenty to do the unseemly thing and refuse to certify the result.Maybe he will, and maybe he won’t. But all of this means that the progressive groups pushing back on the GOP’s attempt to keep the seat vacant will need–or feel the need–to step up efforts like this one.

But let’s assume Democrats do get to 60. What then? Well, arguably, it won’t necessarily mean a whole lot. It won’t mean the President suddenly gets his way all the time. It won’t, for instance, mean that major legislation like EFCA or cap-and-trade will suddenly sail through Congress. Those issues have proven intractable even within the Democratic caucus, and the political complications won’t go away just because that that caucus is now one member larger.

Sometimes a politician will switch party affiliations and then travel quickly from the center to the party’s extreme. That, however, doesn’t seem to be Arlen Specter’s modus operendi. He said today that he opposes using budget reconciliation to pass health reform. He said, too, that he still opposes EFCA.

Anything can happen, of course, particularly when a politician is faced with a serendipitous combination of low-cost opportunism and high-reward legacy building–the 2010 election and other events may, to some extent, shape Specter’s course for him. But unless he surprises everyone and becomes a reliable left-labor Democrat, he’ll probably settle in among Democratic conservatives. He could potentially join the so-called Moderate Dem. Caucus. If he does–if he decides he wants to burrow into the niche he carved out for himself during the stimulus debate–that loose group of 15-or-so on the party’s right will become that much more power. They’ll consider it a vindication of their alliance, and they’ll have one more potential vote, if they need it, to water down or thwart the Democratic agenda.

Still, the milestone isn’t meaningless. When the Democrats reach the 60-vote threshold, they’ll be secure in the knowledge that a supermajorities-worth of senators are vested, to a large extent, in the President’s success–that there are diminishing returns to obstruction and that those returns can become toxic if they cause Obama to fail and bring the party down with him. The obvious flip side to that is that Republicans will no longer be able to fall back on party unanimity to thwart the Democrats at all turns. And that can’t help but damage the party’s psychology and, perhaps more importantly, it’s bargaining power. It’s easy to overstate things, and there may even be a temptation to do so, but in a lot of ways, it really is (or will soon be) an entirely new playing field.

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