The first wave of speculation over the implications of Sen. Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party surrounded one of the day's most hotly contested legislative issues: the Employee Free Choice Act.
Starting with the belief that Specter was driven to opposing the bill by the pressures of a close-to-impossible Republican primary, the thinking went that as the electoral threat faded, so too would his EFCA opposition. Adding a bit of kindling to the fire, the early rumor from Capitol Hill was that Democratic leadership in the Senate had struck a deal with Specter on EFCA as a precondition for him joining their ranks. After slight alterations to the bill, the Pennsylvanian would offer his support. In turn, the party would be spared the embarrassing sight of having the labor community cold on both candidates in the 2010 Senate race.
"I hear that Reid worked something out with Specter so that with a few minor changes he will support EFCA," emailed one well-connected Democrat. "Reid needed that to avoid labor being furious at Specter taking the Dem seat."
Alas, the rumor seems to be just that. In conversations with key labor and Democratic Party figures, the EFCA-related news was fairly clear: The legislation is no closer to getting the 60 votes it needs to cut off a Republican filibuster than when Specter was a member of the GOP. As one senior Democratic aide noted, "[Specter] made it clear he still opposed the Employee Free Choice Act in his statement." Moreover, even if Democrats were able to bring him back into the fold, "you still have to deal with [Blanche] Lincoln, Diane [Feinstein] and Jim [Webb]."
All of which is not to say that the day's developments don't carry significance. Removed from Republican caucus pressure, Specter may very well revert to his 2003 and 2007 EFCA stance, when he co-sponsored and supported cloture respectively. And, as another labor source noted, if a deal happened to be struck on compromise legislation, it was more likely now that Specter (along with the recalcitrant Democrats) would be brought on board.
"This is a new day for the Employee Free Choice Act and labor law reform," AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel told Politico.
That said, officials in the labor community and on the Hill were quick to downplay talk that, behind the scenes, the groundwork had suddenly been put in place for Specter to back an altered version of the bill.
"All of that would have been happening even if he hadn't switched parties," said one high-ranking labor official. "We've been trying to win back his support since he came out against [EFCA]."
Specter himself has stressed that his stance on EFCA would not change -- but as multiple people have pointed out, he also insisted he would remain in the GOP.
"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," he said in his statement. "Unlike Senator Jeffords' switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change."
And, apparently, the senator's close aides are making similar assurances to EFCA opponents in private.
"In his statement said he is not switching," Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, told the Huffington Post. "And his Chief of Staff reiterated this to me over the phone."