Specter's Vote For Stimulus Held Against Him

April 19, 2009|By James Oliphant | James Oliphant,Tribune Washington Bureau

DARBY, Pa. - It was the kind of choreographed event that keeps elected officials in office for decades: a member of Congress giving a small town a jolt of money and a shot of hope - all while the cameras are rolling.

But right now, Arlen Specter can hand out all the stimulus money in the world and it may not save his political career.

Specter, the long-serving Republican senator from Pennsylvania, came to this working-class borough south of Philadelphia last week bearing $220,000 to build a youth recreation center, courtesy of the economic stimulus bill.

Local officials were grateful. "The money for Darby couldn't have come at a better time," the town's police chief, Robert Smythe, told Specter. "It's a life-saver for us."

For Specter, though, the stimulus cash could be his undoing. His political future lies in peril largely because of his decision in February to break ranks with his party and support the nearly $800 billion bill. Specter now has multiple challengers in next year's primary as he seeks a sixth term.

But even while his future is in jeopardy, Specter, 79, holds a position of power unlike any in his 29-year senatorial career. As one of the few moderate Republicans in the Senate, he can help broker President Barack Obama's agenda in a way many of his fellow senators can only dream about.

Doing so is freighted with risk. Any move he makes toward helping Obama and the Democrats enact health care, energy or immigration legislation could doom him in next spring's primary.

Specter is also under attack from the left. Labor unions have been furious since he announced last month that he would not back the "card check" bill that would make it easier to form bargaining units - a decision that essentially killed the measure's prospects for the time being. Labor groups have criticized Specter in TV ads and mailers, which could soften his political support among the moderates crucial to his success.

"He's in trouble," said Christopher Borick, an expert in state politics at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "He's gotten himself in a jam."

Polls show Specter trailing his main Republican challenger, Pat Toomey, former president of the Club for Growth, a group of fiscal conservatives. Specter barely edged out Toomey five years ago.

Specter contends that if he were to lose the GOP primary, a Democratic candidate would win the Senate seat next year. Democrats would then have their long-desired 60-vote filibuster-proof majority.

"The one thing standing between a Democratic steamroller and the American people are the 41 Republican votes in the Senate," Specter said in an interview in his Washington office this month.

Says political scientist Borick: "Specter is telling the GOP: You may not like me, but you need me."

So far, the party leadership seems to agree. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has signaled that the establishment will back Specter. He sent a letter last month to Pennsylvania Republicans that said: "I believe Senator Specter is our best hope to keep this Senate seat in the GOP column."

Specter's base of Republican moderates, however, is eroding. "The ground has moved from underneath him," Borick said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.