Arlen SpecterWashington is buzzing about Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s surprise switch to the Democratic Party on Tuesday, a move that will likely give Dems enough votes to overcome filibusters. Specter, a moderate who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, has been considered a key swing vote on climate and energy, among other issues.

“I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans,” he said in a statement.

But that doesn’t mean Specter will support a climate bill this year. “My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats than I have been for the Republicans … I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture,” he said.

Democrats will now have 60 votes (if Al Franken is ever seated), enough to break a Republican filibuster. But moderate Democrats like Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas have expressed misgivings about backing anything remotely aggressive, while moderate Republicans like Specter and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine have been seen as possible aisle-hoppers on a climate bill. Specter’s stance on the subject probably won’t change much, as he remains a moderate from a coal state with a substantial industry base.

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Specter’s record

Specter has been a hard senator to peg when it comes to environmental policy. While he acknowledges the problem of global warming and believes legislative action should be taken, he’s favored industry-friendly approaches to a cap-and-trade system that fall short of what most scientists and environmentalists argue is needed.

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“This is an issue that requires all of our attention. Global warming is upon us,” he told the crowd at a townhall meeting at Drexel University sponsored by climate-action group Focus the Nation on April 13. “It’s taken a long time for it to be generally acknowledged and recognized.”

While he emphasized in his speech at Drexel that action to address climate change is necessary, Specter hasn’t in the past endorsed climate bills offered by others in the Senate. He voted against the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act in 2005, saying later that it “did not contain adequate consideration of the U.S. economy” and did not “adequately address the global nature of the problem” –- i.e., it did nothing to press China, India, and other developing nations into action.

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Also in 2005, he joined with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to author an amendment to the Energy Policy Act that called on Congress to “enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of such emissions.” But the amendment stipulated that the program should “not significantly harm the United States economy” and should “encourage comparable action by other nations that are major trading partners and key contributors to global emissions.”

Specter wasn’t present for the vote on the failed Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act last year, but in his remarks to the Focus the Nation crowd, he implied that he would not have backed it. That bill, like McCain-Lieberman, was weaker than the climate bill now being debated in the House and the standards environmental groups have called for.

“I believe that it is more effective to choose something which can be legislated at the present time, which is within the reach of our current technologies … The standards of the Lieberman-Warner go beyond the current technology,” he said during the Drexel townhall meeting.

During the debate on Lieberman-Warner, before the bill died, Specter said he wanted to offer amendments to lower the emission-reduction targets, create more cost-containment mechanisms, and add more financial support for coal to give it a “pathway to the future.”

Specter cosponsored a weaker cap-and-trade bill in 2007 with Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), featuring a so-called “safety valve” to contain costs for industries by automatically releasing additional emission allowances onto the market if the allowance price rose to a certain level. Enviros don’t care for this approach; the point of an emission-credit system, they say, is to make it noticeably more expensive to pollute so industries will have incentive to reduce their emissions.

In 2007, Specter joined with 51 other members of Congress, mostly Democrats, in signing a letter chastising the Bush administration for refusing to engage in serious negotiations on an international climate treaty. But the day after he signed that letter, he voted against an energy bill that would have repealed some tax breaks for oil companies in order to fund renewable energy –- causing the bill to fall one vote short of passage.

Specter this year

Specter told Grist after his April 13 speech that he’s at work on another climate bill with Bingaman, which will likely be “similar” to their 2007 legislation -– i.e., much weaker than Democratic House leaders and the Obama administration have called for.

“I think we ought to have a bill which is as aggressive as possible, subject to two criteria,” Specter told Grist. “One is that it has a realistic chance of passage, and second that it establishes goals which are within current technical know-how.”

Specter was among the 66 senators to reject the option of using the budget reconciliation process to pass a climate bill.

He is expected to continue protecting home-state interests like the coal industry. He’s an avid support of “clean coal” technologies, which he says “will play a key role in energy production well into the future.” He’s also supported legislation to promote coal-to-liquid technology. Over his political career, the oil, gas, and electric utility industries have donated nearly $1 million to Specter’s campaigns.

Asked whether his bid for reelection next year would affect his position on a climate bill, Specter –- who is known for being somewhat prickly –- snapped back, “Not really … a bill’s a bill. Last year I wasn’t up for reelection.”

Yet it’s clear that the looming election is a key reason the senator switched parties. A moderate Republican in a state that’s been trending Democratic, Specter has held onto his seat by slimmer margins over the years. His opponent in the 2010 Republican primary would have been Pat Toomey, a hardline conservative who nearly beat Specter in the 2004 primary. Many moderate Republicans in the state switched to the Democratic Party last year to take part in the Democratic primary, making Specter’s chances of pulling out a win in the GOP primary even lower. Early polls showed Toomey way out front.

It’s possible that his switch to the Democratic Party will allow Specter to be more aggressive on climate, as he won’t have a Republican primary to worry about.

The grassroots target Specter

Even before his party switch, progressive groups were targeting Specter on climate and energy. Over the recent congressional recess, both Focus the Nation and tried to engage the senator on these issues while he was back in Pennsylvania.

On April 16, MoveOn volunteer council leader Vanette Jordan and four other members stopped by Specter’s office to drop off letters from 411 small-business owners across the state urging him to support Obama’s climate and energy plans.

Jordan, a 45-year-old Philadelphia native, voted for Arlen Specter in the general election of 2004, when he was facing a tough race against a Democratic challenger. A life-long Democrat and a volunteer organizer with MoveOn, Jordan said she backed him then because she agreed with his views on children’s health care. This time she wants him to support a clean energy and climate bill.

“If he champions — not just supports, but becomes a champion — of President Obama’s new, clean energy agenda, he has my vote,” Jordan told Grist earlier this month. “Right now, he’s unpredictable. We’re going to have to try to encourage him.”

“I think there are a lot of people in Philadelphia that feel the same way about it,” Jordan continued.

Jordan has become a regular visitor to Specter’s downtown Philly office, where many on staff know her by name. As the debate in Washington over climate and energy policy heats up this summer, she plans to keep dropping by.

MoveOn plans to ramp up activism on climate and energy by getting its 5 million members to pressure legislators like Specter. “We’re really continuing to demonstrate to Sen. Specter that he really has a choice between supporting the pollution-based economy … or really supporting the backbone of our economy, which is small businesses,” said Emily Southard, a field organizer with MoveOn in Philadelphia, earlier this month.

The National Wildlife Federation also hopes it can push Specter to be more aggressive on climate and energy. Adam Kolton, the group’s senior director for congressional and federal affairs, put out a video statement on the party switch on Tuesday, noting that while Specter has supported some relatively weak legislation in the past, “There’s an opportunity to work with him again.”

“He’s someone we hope will really roll up his sleeves and get to work addressing climate change and the biggest environmental challenges of our time,” said Kolton.