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WASHINGTON, April 28 Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter said on Tuesday he will switch parties, moving Democrats closer to a 60-vote Senate majority that would allow them to break Republican procedural roadblocks.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Specter will begin working immediately with Democrats, who would then control 59 seats in the 100-member Senate -- one vote short of the 60 needed to bypass Republicans and push through legislation.
Democrats could reach that 60-vote threshold if they capture the still contested Minnesota Senate race. Democrat Al Franken won the vote tally, but Republican Norm Coleman is challenging the outcome in court.
Specter, 79, one of the few remaining prominent moderate Republicans, faces a difficult re-election battle in Pennsylvania next year.
He said the "Republican Party has moved far to the right" and noted that some 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their voting registration for the November 2008 election, in which Democratic President Barack Obama handily won the state.
"My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans," Specter said in a statement posted on his campaign Web site.
The party switch is not a complete surprise because he was facing a tough primary bid to be the Republican candidate for the Senate seat in the state. Specter also broke with Republicans to support the $787 billion economic stimulus bill in February.
"I know it had to really tear him up, but he had to face reality," said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a longtime friend of Specter. "He has a better chance of winning reelection as a Democrat than a Republican."
An administration official said Obama was handed a note during his daily economic briefing 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 we are "thrilled to have you."
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, Thomas Ferraro and Jeff Mason, editing by Patricia Zengerle)