Some Democratic senators upset over Specter switch

Democratic senators howl at Harry Reid's promise to honor Arlen Specter's seniority.

Published April 30, 2009 4:00PM (EDT)

Some of you probably know the feeling: You spend years working for that big promotion, only to see it go to some flashy hotshot your boss lured away from a competitor. It's not great for office morale.

If you haven't figured it out already, we're talking about Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and yes, this is possibly the only time you’ll ever see him described as “some flashy hotshot,” even if it is in extended metaphor. When Specter agreed to jump ship on the GOP, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid secretly promised him the world, or at least its Senate-equivalent -- that he’d get to keep his decades of seniority. That means committee chairmanships.

The problem is, there are lots of senior Democrats who’ve been diligently waiting their turn to handle coveted gavels. Some of them even get reelected by promising to lavish their constituents with federal money, procured with the help of years of seniority. And, Politico reports, these long-timers aren’t pleased to see Specter jump the line.

In particular, Reid’s promise might enable Specter to leap-frog toward the senior end of the coveted Appropriations Committee, opening up a lucrative position as a “cardinal” -- that is, chairman of a subcommittee. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, four years Specter’s junior in the Senate, protests, “It doesn’t work that way.” And though Reid promises that no changes will be made to committee chairs until after 2010, Harkin, chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Environment Subcommittee, wasn’t mollified. “I’m not going to give it up then, either.”

In a way, this situation parallels Specter’s standing with the electorate as well. As a new, and probably unreliable, Democratic vote in the Senate, Specter’s got to keep an eye on his left flank against a primary challenge. But, as in the Senate, his new party leaders are watching his back and trying to scare off challenges from the left.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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