Meet the “New” Specter. Same as the ‘Ol Specter.

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Meet the New Specter. Same as the ‘ol Specter.

So much for his leftward shift in voting. (At least so far!)  In case you missed it, in an important vote on the day after announcing his defection, Senator Arlen Specter sided with his former Republicans to vote against the Obama-backed $3.4 trillion budget resolution. That resolution lays out the administration’s tax and spending priorities for health care, education and other issues for the next fiscal year.   The spending plan passed without a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate. In the Senate, the vote was 53-43, with four Democrats, including Specter, voting against it.  The House had earlier approved the resolution by 233-193, with 17 Democrats voting with the Republicans.  I’ll have more to say about the budget resolution later (including the inclusion of a provision allowing health care legislation to come up under filibuster-proof reconciliation instructions), but for now I thought it was an interesting test case regarding Specter’s likely voting pattern as a Democrat, at least in name.

But wait. There’s more. Later in the week the Senate defeated a provision to a bankruptcy reform measure designed to allow homeowners meeting certain guidelines to renegotiate their mortgages (or “cramdown”) under bankruptcy protection.  The bill was opposed by the banking industry but supported by the Obama administration and many Democrats.  Nonetheless, Democrats did not come close to mustering the votes needed to overcome a threatened filibuster, getting only 45 votes, or 15 less than needed to invoke cloture. And once again Specter voted with his former, Republican, party, against the Democratic majority.  (All Republicans, joined by 12 Democrats, opposed the measure to invoke cloture.)

What’s going on here?  It’s Specter staying true to his constituency, while keeping a nervous eye on the upcoming 2010 election.  So far, his biggest fear is not from the unknown candidate in the Democratic primary (he’s evidently counting on the Democratic party clearing the field for him) – it’s from his likely Republican opposition in the general election.

Of course, this is only two votes.  The budget resolution was clearly going to pass the Senate no matter what Specter did. (Note that the budget resolution is not subject to filibuster in the Senate).  And it is only a budget blueprint – the overall numbers still must be reconciled with the separate tax and spending bills.  The “cramdown” amendment, meanwhile, didn’t even have much support among conservative Democrats. On other issues, most notably health care reform and climate change, I expect that Specter will be much more willing to work with the Democrats. But these initial votes provide early evidence of my claim that, contrary to what many political scientists were suggesting, he is likely to remain the same moderate swing vote that he was before the switch.

By the way, here’s Specter’s party support scores according to CQ (via USAToday):

How often Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania voted with or against his party

since 2000 as a Republican:

Year Support Oppose
2008 62% 38%
2007 49% 51%
2006 61% 39%
2005 69% 31%
2004* 70% 30%
2003 84% 16%
2002 60% 40%
2001 60% 40%
2000 67% 33%

* Specter was up for re-election in 2004

Source: Congressional Quarterly

So as recently as 2007 he was already voting against his party more often than not.  I expect that will happen with more frequency now, but as these two recent crucial votes indicate, he’s not a lock to vote the Democratic party line by any means.

P.S.  I’ve gotten lots of inquiries regarding the Souter resignation, and whether Hillary is next in line for the court.  Believe it or not, there are some basic rules of thumb regarding who presidents tend to nominate to the high court.  The next few days are busy, but I’ll try to get some data on this issue.  But let me offer a tease: there’s lots of evidence that politicians, as opposed to those who are deeply steeped in legal training (legal scholars), make more “effective” justices, because they are more amenable to compromise and splitting the differences between competing views, which in turn produces more moderate, and publicly acceptable, court decisions.

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