WASHINGTON U.S. Senator Arlen Specter defected from the Republican Party to President Barack Obama's Democrats on Tuesday, putting them within reach of a 60-seat majority that could give them control of the Senate.
"This is a painful decision," Specter told reporters of the stunning move that boosted his 2010 re-election chances to a sixth six-year term by sidestepping a tough challenge in the Republican primary from conservative Pat Toomey.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promptly welcomed the 79-year-old moderate into the ranks of Democrats, who now control 59 seats in the 100-member Senate. Democrats will reach 60 if they triumph in a contested Minnesota Senate race.
A 60-vote majority would be enough to override Republican procedural hurdles and muscle through key parts of Obama's agenda, including measures to provide health insurance to all Americans and combat global warming while moving the nation toward energy independence.
The last time either party held 60 Senate seats was in 1978, when the Democrats had 61. Democrat Al Franken, who won the November vote tally in Minnesota, would be the 60th but Republican Norm Coleman is challenging the count in court.
"Since my election in 1980 ... the Republican Party has moved far to the right," Specter said in a statement explaining his defection. "I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."
KNOWN AS A MODERATE
Specter added in the statement posted on his campaign website: "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."
An administration official said Obama was handed a note during his daily economic briefing at the White House that said Specter would announce he was changing parties.
A few minutes later, the official said Obama reached Specter and told him "you have my full support" and that Democrats were "thrilled to have you."
At a news conference, Specter said Obama also told him "he would come to Pennsylvania and campaign for me."
Specter, who was a Democrat before first being elected to the Senate in 1980, said Democratic leaders had been courting him "the past five years" to switch as they watched him cast votes that were at times more in line with Democrats than Republicans.
Many Senate Republicans angrily denounced the switch.
"The threat to the country presented by this defection really relates to the issue of whether or not in the United States of America our people want the majority to have whatever it wants without restraint," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Senator John Ensign, a member of the Republican leadership, added, "It is imperative that we have checks and balances to ensure that Democrats don't take our country radically left."
Toomey, a former congressman who narrowly lost the 2004 Republican Senate primary to Specter, said Specter faces a credibility problem.
"The question that I think Democrats and Pennsylvanians generally will be asking themselves is, can they trust this man?" Toomey told MSNBC.
"Just last week he went all over Pennsylvania insisting that it was vitally important that we not turn over the entire government to the Democrats and that that was why he needed to be elected in the primary, because only he could win the general and remain a Republican," Toomey said. "Then today he personally delivers control of the government to the Democrats."
Specter, who had been one of the Senate's few Republican moderates, had a reputation for crossing the political aisle.
He caught the ire of conservatives in Pennsylvania in February when he was one of three Senate Republicans to vote for Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan.
Senator Olympia Snowe, another Republican moderate, said, "Many Republicans feel alienated and disaffected from the Republican Party," which has been floundering since Democrats last year won the White House and expanded their control of Congress.
Recent polls showed Specter trailing in his bid to win the Republican nomination for re-election and more popular among Democrats than Republicans.
SUPPORT FROM STATE'S DEMOCRATS
A survey released last month by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found Specter got a thumbs up from 60 percent of Democrats.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a longtime friend of Specter's, said the decision to switch had to be a tough one.
"It had to really tear him up, but he had to face reality," Hatch said. "He has a better chance of winning re-election as a Democrat than a Republican."
Democrat Robert Byrd, at 91 the oldest member of the Senate, said, "I am delighted to welcome him as a Democratic colleague. Arlen Specter gives our side of the aisle not only a numerical boost, but also an intellectual shot in the arm."
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Jeff Mason; editing by John Whitesides, Howard Goller and Eric Walsh)