Tactical consequences of the Specter switch

I spent more than seven years working in the Senate, including 5 and a half working for Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), in his time both as Majority Leader and as Minority Leader resulting from Sen. Jeffords’ party switch.

There is a lot of hype about how Sen. Specter’s switch from Republican to Democrat will give Senate Majority Leader Reid 60 votes, assuming that Mr. Al Franken is sworn in as a Democrat Senator from Minneota. Some are suggesting that there will be no legislative check on Democrat majorities, now that Senator Reid has 60 votes to invoke cloture and shut off filibusters.

This is an exaggeration. While Leader Reid’s tactical position is clearly stronger, given that Sen. Specter was a frequent Reid target for that 60th vote, it is important not to overstate the change.

Here are what I think will be some practical consequences of the party switch:

  1. I imagine Sen. Specter’s voting patterns on issues that are clearly high personal priorities for him, like judicial issues, health, and appropriations, will show almost no appreciable change. I think the same will be true for headline issues like Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorist surveillance.
  2. The biggest effect will be on the small votes, as well as votes on things that are not high priorities for Sen. Specter. If he behaves like other party switchers, his new party will get many of these votes, because his default vote will switch from R to D. This benefits Leader Reid in that he has more flexibility with other Democrats who might be tempted to vote against the party on a particular issue.
  3. The same will be true for many procedural votes, on which I expect him to vote with his new party.
  4. But on cloture votes, where Sen. Specter has often been the marginal Republican vote, it is easy to imagine him being a less-than-reliable Democrat vote for cloture, just as he was a less-than-reliable Republican vote against cloture.
  5. Assuming Sen. Specter wins re-election, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans on committees will improve slightly for Democrats. This has a significant practical effect on the legislation that actually reaches the Senate floor.
  6. I assume Sen. Specter’s chance for re-election increases substantially.

The Specter switch contributes to significant short-term Democrat political momentum. The long-term legislative effect matters, but it is not as large as some observers are suggesting.