Specter condemned Jim Jeffords' party switch in 2001 When the Vermont Republican became an independent, Specter lost a committee chairmanship in the Senate's resulting power shift. An angry Specter proposed a ban on such party switches. By Peter Nicholas
3:06 PM PDT, April 28, 2009
Reporting from Washington — When a Senate Republican left his party in 2001, elevating the Democrats to majority status, one member of the GOP was especially vocal about his displeasure: Arlen Specter.
Specter said then- Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' decision to become an independent was disruptive to the functioning of Congress. He proposed a rule forbidding party switches that had the effect of vaulting the minority to majority status in the middle of a congressional session.
"If somebody wants to change parties, they can do that," Specter said at the time. "But that kind of instability is not good for governance of the country and the Senate."
Now it is Specter switching parties, proclaiming himself a Democrat. While the move won't throw one party out of power, it could potentially hand the Democrats a 60-vote majority and deprive the GOP of the ability to block legislation through a filibuster.
Eight years ago, Jeffords' decision cost Specter his chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Specter said at the time that he wanted the rule change to prevent a party switch that could decisively swing the balance of power in the Senate overnight, disrupting U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
He also said that Jeffords' move would put Senate staff members out of work as committee chairmanships changed hands, and that he had already seen "a lot of crying" among staff members worried about their future.
Donald Ritchie, associate Senate historian, said in an interview Tuesday that the Jeffords move "was terrifically disruptive. People had to move out of their offices and staffs had to change."
But Specter's proposal quickly ran into opposition. Democrats balked. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) called the proposal unconstitutional. (Lieberman would later leave the Democratic Party to become an independent.) The proposal was never adopted.
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said the rule would have "deprived a senator of the free will to make a decision."
Specter's proposal, Baker said, was intended "to ingratiate himself with colleagues with whom [Specter] was on the outs" -- the Republicans. "That was one way he could do it. And it was received with the coldness it deserved."
In a statement today, Specter sought to draw a distinction between his party change and that of Jeffords, who did not seek reelection in 2006. Specter said that he would not necessarily vote in lock step with the Democrats.
"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," he said. "Unlike Sen. Jeffords' switch, which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote."