Despite pledging not to be an automatic vote for Democrats, in the nearly one year since he switched parties, Sen. Arlen Specter has been all but that, repeatedly supporting his new party when they needed to head off Republican filibusters.
The senator from Pennsylvania has voted with fellow Democrats 39 times to cut off filibusters, while just once has he voted against his leaders when he joined an effort to block the confirmation of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben S. Bernanke to a new term.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Sen. Scott Brown has so far made good on his vow to vote independently, having supported Democrats on six of the nine filibuster votes taken during his two-plus months in office.
With Democrats holding such a large majority in the Senate, cloture votes, which effectively move to limit debate and allow action to proceed, have become a good way of judging party fealty.
For most of the time since his April 28, 2009, party switch, Mr. Specter represented the critical 60th vote for Democrats. But when Mr. Brown won a special election and was sworn in on Feb. 4, he gave Republicans the crucial 41st vote, allowing them to filibuster — if they all hold together.
Last year, when he switched parties after seeing he had little chance of winning re-election as a Republican, Mr. Specter told reporters his new party should not assume his support was guaranteed.
"I will not be changing my own personal independence or my own approach to individual issues. I will not be an automatic 60th vote," he said, adding, "If the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not vote with them."
Since then, though, he's backed his new party at nearly every turn, and he says it's part of a pattern he's shown no matter who was in charge of Congress and no matter what his party affiliation was.
He said in a brief interview last week that his approach has been to favor letting debate go forward.
"I've consistently voted for cloture to take things up," he said, pointing to his 2008 vote, when he was still a Republican, in favor of Democratic leaders' desire to take up the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for labor unions to organize. Mr. Specter said he didn't support that bill but voted for cloture so that it could be debated.
Many senators, including Mr. Brown, draw the same distinction, saying that they feel free to vote against a bill or nomination on an up-or-down vote, but are reluctant to shut off the process altogether by way of a filibuster.
Still, Mr. Specter's support for Democrats over the past year stands in stark contrast to his behavior as a Republican, when he was far more selective in his cloture votes.
For example, during the year before his party switch, when Democrats were in power, Mr. Specter gave them support of cloture votes 29 out of the 41 times he voted. During 2006, when Republicans were still in power and Mr. Specter was one of them, he voted against most of his party on five of 18 contentious votes, including on immigration, abortion and a constitutional amendment defining marriage.
Rep. Joe Sestak, the Pennsylvania Democrat who is challenging Mr. Specter in their party primary this year, argues that Mr. Specter is toeing the Democratic line only because he's facing a challenge within the party.
Jonathon Dworkin, a spokesman for Mr. Sestak, said that's borne out by the switches Mr. Specter has made on high-profile issues.
"Sen. Specter has built his career on doing what it takes to save his job, whether it is switching parties or switching positions on the most important issues — from health care reform to the Employee Free Choice Act and civil rights for the LGBT community," Mr. Dworkin said.
From the right, former Rep. Pat Toomey, the man whose challenge in the Republican primary chased Mr. Specter from the GOP, also says Mr. Specter's votes are more about political preservation than principle.
"Arlen Specter has proven that he is committed to no principle or policy more than the preservation of his own political career," said Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for Pat Toomey, the Republican seeking to challenge Mr. Specter in November. Ms. Soloveichik said Mr. Specter has "become a rubber stamp" for Democrats.
As for Mr. Brown, he says his votes on cloture don't always mean support for Democrats' agenda.
Early last week, he voted with Democrats to begin debate on a bill to prolong benefits to those who have been jobless the longest, but later voted with all but one other Republican in demanding that strict budget rules be applied. Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, voted with Democrats, giving them 60 votes to waive the budget rules and add the extra spending without finding offsetting cuts.
"I have pledged to do my best to change the tone in Washington, and my vote to continue the debate rather than obstruct it serves as a step in that direction," he said of his initial vote to move the debate along.
On CBS' "Face the Nation" program this weekend, he said he is prepared to join the other 40 Senate Republicans in filibustering to stop the current version of the financial regulation bill Democrats are pushing.
The Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman didn't return calls on Mr. Brown's voting pattern.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC