Biden, Rendell: What Role in Specter Switch

"Good riddance," crowed the National Republican Campaign Committee, but that sentiment doesn't come close to summing up the reaction among most Senate Republicans to losing Arlen Specter, a stalwart in Beltway politics for more than a quarter century. The GOP is putting up a brave front, claiming that Pennsylvania voters will have a clear choice now that "left-leaning" Republican-in-name-only Specter is out of the closet. Still, the reaction from Olympia Snowe, now one of barely a half dozen moderate Republicans left in the Senate, might be more accurate. "For me personally and then for the party, its devastating," Snowe told CNN.

The reaction among Democrats, now so very close to a filibusterproof 60-vote majority in the Senate, was understandably more upbeat. "What must Norm Coleman be thinking?" chuckled one Democrat I talked to. "He's fighting to the death to keep the Democrats from getting to 60. He's a former Democrat turned Republican—and he's outfoxed by a Republican turned Democrat. It's all just too funny."

Funny, yes, and seriously Machiavellian, claims one GOP source, who attributes Specter's surprise defection to a Biden-Rendell bank shot. Vice President Joe Biden is from Scranton, Pa., and Ed Rendell is governor of Pennsylvania, ties that put them solidly in Specter's orbit. Biden spent the last three decades in the Senate and knows Specter well. They served together on the Judiciary Committee back in the day when they along with many others made fools of themselves grilling Anita Hill. The self-interest of the Obama-Biden administration in getting that 60th vote in the Senate is self-evident. It changes the calculus for everything going forward (health-care reform, judicial nominations) if Democrats have a filibusterproof majority in the Senate.

Then there's Rendell, whose personal ties to Specter are extensive, but who also has a political stake in seeing him hold his seat in Pennsylvania. Rendell once worked for Specter and regards him as something of a mentor; they're friends. For Rendell, a gregarious, ambitious politician, a Senate seat would cap his career as a former mayor and popular two-term governor. Those who know Rendell say he really wants the seat that Specter holds but would not run against his friend. The scenario that was unfolding had Specter losing in the Republican primary to Club for Growth President Pat Toomy, the favorite of Pennsylvania's conservative Republican base, and then had Toomy losing to a Democrat in November 2010. The Democrat suiting up for that task was Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral in his second term, eager to move up, and at 57 years of age, young enough to stake a claim on the seat.

A Sestak candidacy would derail Rendell's future plans. Keeping Specter in the seat at his age, which is 79, makes it far more likely that the seat would open up in the kind of timetable Rendell would hope for. There were reports late Tuesday that the Republicans might try to draft former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge to run against Specter, that the GOP would not go quietly into the political night. But even Ridge would have to get by Toomy and the far-right brigades in the primary. A Republican source says Specter met with conservative groups last week to complain about the Toomy challenge, and how it was eroding his ability to keep the seat for the party. He was treated dismissively. "That's our base," they said, apparently not realizing Specter would consider leaving the GOP.

For Specter, the decision to switch parties is a no-brainer. There will not be a Republican majority in Congress in his lifetime, and if Specter earns the trust of the Democrats by voting with them on a few key procedural votes to get over the 60-vote threshold, he may get the coveted chair of the Judiciary Committee, where he is now ranking member, in time to shepherd Supreme Court nominations for President Obama.

Whatever Rendell did to get Specter to this point, their political futures are now inextricably bound together. And if there's any politician you want on your side in a knife fight, it's Rendell. He is the closest thing to a ward boss in Pennsylvania. He can clear the field for Specter, gin up the enthusiastic support and help raise the kind of money Specter will need. And then, in due time, it will be Rendell's turn.