Arlene Specter: the most important U.S. newsmaker this week

Thursday, 30. April 2009     0 comment(s)
Charly Salonius-Pasternak
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme

The first 100 days in office have clarified for most observers that Barack Obama truly is driven by an Audacity of Hope. The decisions he has been called upon to make have been of such consequence that most presidents do not have to make such choices over their entire term of office.

As I said on Aamu-tv yesterday, the Obama Administration has moved on a broad front, taking full advantage of the “crisis atmosphere” and there have been some real achievements both in domestic and foreign policy arenas. The most underreported domestic achievement has been the expansion of the S-CHIP program, which guarantees that approximately four million more children in the United States receive appropriate healthcare.

With a view to being able to implement the larger healthcare, energy & environment and education related legislation that Obama sees as crucial for the future of the United States, the biggest single news event of the week this far was the announcement by Pennsylvania senator Arlene Specter that he is switching from the Republican to the Democratic party.

This defection effectively guarantees that sixty Democratic Party senators will be seated in the U.S. Senate, when the fall legislative sessions begin in earnest. The current 58 Democratic senators, plus Arlene Specter, plus Al Franken of Minnesota (the courts and the state’s governor are likely to finally approve his narrow victory in Minnesota), places 60 Democratic Party senators in the U.S. senate. In theory, this allows them to override any Republican Party attempts at stopping the legislative process through filibustering, making the passage of healthcare reform (for example) much more likely. A word of caution is appropriate, a handful of these senators fall squarely into the conservative wing of the Democratic party, meaning that they will not consistently vote for all party initiatives and will at the very least drive very hard bargains.

The switch also does not make the approval of any post-Kyoto treaties to curb climate change automatic. The reason is simply that such treaties need to be approved by a 2/3 majority in the Senate, so sixty is closer but not enough. A domestic cap and trade program is, however, now potentially easier to achieve.

External events could change the paths of history, but with Arlene Specter’s announcement that he is switching parties, President Barack Obama has within his reach the tools to make his time as president one of historic change – now they really can!


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