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Last updated: April 29, 2009 12:04 am
President Barack Obama was presented with a timely 99th-day political windfall on Tuesday when Republican lawmaker Arlen Specter switched parties, giving the administration the prospect of a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the US Senate.
The move by the 79-year-old from Pennsylvania, who faced a tough Republican nomination battle next year, will strengthen the White House’s domination of the political agenda by giving Democrats on Capitol Hill sufficient votes to marginalise the increasingly obstructionist Republican opposition.
“The Republican party has moved far to the right,” said Mr Specter, who was one of three Republican senators whose support enabled Mr Obama’s $787bn fiscal stimulus to become law in February.
In an ominous sign for the Grand Old Party, Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican senator from Maine, yesterday added: “Ultimately, we’re heading to having the smallest political tent in history.
“If the Republican party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle.”
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator for South Carolina, and a close ally of former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, voiced similar misgivings about his party’s future. “I don’t want to be a member of the Club for Growth,” he said, in reference to Pat Toomey, the former head of the right-wing Club for Growth, whose primary challenge to Mr Specter for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania prompted yesterday’s switch.
Ahead of next year’s Republican primary, Mr Specter has being trailing his rival by as much as 21 points in recent polls.
Before Mr Specter’s defection, the Democrats held 58 seats in the chamber and the party is confident of claiming one more when the legal contest surrounding a yet-to-settled contest in Minnesota in resolved.
That would give them the 60 needed to close off debate in the Senate to add to their strong hold on the House of Representatives.
The shift also consolidates Mr Obama’s dominance of Washington just as his administration prepares to mark its first 100 days in office and comes in spite of recent criticism from Republicans that the president had given up on his ambitions to reach out to his Republican opponents.
The opposition party is now weaker on Capitol Hill than at any time for three decades. No president since Jimmy Carter has commanded 60 votes in the Senate.
“I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans,” Mr Specter said. He added that his vote this year for Mr Obama’s stimulus had led to an “irreconcilable” schism between himself and his old party.
Mr Specter cautioned that he would not vote automatically for the Democratic party line, particularly on issues such as his opposition to legislation empowering trade unions.
However, his decision will enthuse supporters of Mr Obama’s plans for healthcare, a topic Mr Specter singled out in his statement on Tuesday.
A cancer survivor, Mr Specter helped add $6.5bn for the National Institutes of Health to the stimulus package earlier this year.
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