"Do you know how long it takes to build up 29 years' seniority in the U.S. Senate?"
That's an ironic query that Sen. Arlen Specter has repeated countless times. It's a not-so-subtle boast on the clout and ability to deliver home-state projects that he's amassed during his record tenure. (For the non-math majors in our readership, the answer is 29.)
But that political calculus was confused Tuesday night after the Senate Democratic caucus balked at an arrangement that would have credited its new member with all the seniority he would have earned had he been a Democrat since he first took office. The result is that the state's senior senator is at least temporarily last in Democratic seniority, blunting one of the chief arguments he planned to use in his quest for a record sixth term.
The arrangement threatens the influence that Mr. Specter had counted on wielding through his once-senior spots on powerful panels, including the judiciary and the appropriations committees.
Mr. Specter issued a statement late yesterday acknowledging the concerns that led to his demotion, but expressing confidence that his clout would be made whole when a new Senate convenes after the 2010 elections.
Repeating an assertion he made when he crossed the Senate aisle, Mr. Specter said that "[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid assured me that I would keep my committee assignments and that I would have the same seniority as if I had been elected as a Democrat in 1980.
"It was understood that the issue of subcommittee chairmanships would not be decided until after the 2010 election. Some members of the caucus have raised concerns about my seniority, so the caucus will vote on my seniority at the same time subcommittee chairmanships are confirmed after the 2010 election," Mr. Specter continued. "I am confident my seniority will be maintained under the arrangement I worked out with Sen. Reid."
In an interview with CNN, Mr. Reid tried to downplay the issue, but offered no guarantees on Mr. Specter's future status.
"I think ... we can try to work something out with individual chairmen, and I'm certainly doing that," he said. "But I think everyone should just kinda relax and understand that he's a Democrat. We're doing our best to make him happy as a Democrat. I think he is, I've talked to him often. And any other situation I think is something that's kinda being made up."
But the campaign of one of Mr. Specter's rivals for next year's Democratic Senate seat suggested that the development undermined a central argument for the senator's re-election.
"This raises a very real question for Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania, and that is, 'What does he have to offer?'" said Mark Nevins, a spokesman for Joe Torsella, the first declared challenger for the Democratic seat. "He has no seniority; he has a 75 percent voting record with [former President] George Bush."
It was one more bump in the sometimes rocky road Mr. Specter has traveled since his conversion from the GOP. Senior Democrats, including President Barack Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell, were quick to embrace his candidacy. Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden appeared with him at the White House the day after he acknowledged that he was switching sides to avoid a likely defeat in a GOP primary against former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey. But like the rank-and-file of the Senate Democratic caucus, some Pennsylvania Democrats and state and national labor leaders weren't ready to jump on the Specter bandwagon.
Labor officials continue to pressure Mr. Specter to drop his opposition to key legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize new workplaces.
At last night's Democratic Party dinner at the Westin Convention Center hotel, Downtown, Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, blistered Mr. Specter in a speech in which he predicted that the senator would suffer politically if he did not change his stance on the Employee Free Choice Act.
Rep. Joe Sestak and Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb are among several party members threatening to join Mr. Torsella as primary candidates against the incumbent.
And the unwelcome surprises weren't confined to his new party -- the unsettled Senate race was further roiled on the Republican side this week with the news that former Gov. Tom Ridge was considering a bid for the GOP nomination against Mr. Toomey.
The seniority rebuff came after Mr. Specter continued to demonstrate that his independent ways had the ability to irritate members of both parties. After standing in the White House with Mr. Obama, he voted against the president's budget. He maintained his opposition to the organizing legislation sought by labor. On a Sunday talk show, he said he would not support a health care reform package that included a public insurance option, and, in a statement he almost immediately retracted, he said he hoped that the courts would intervene to seat Republican Norm Coleman in his protracted Minnesota Senate battle against Democrat Al Franken.
Mr. Sestak suggested that the seniority and committee issues are inside baseball and unlikely to concern average voters. But he contended that it pointed to his more fundamental concerns about Mr. Specter's allegiance to core Democratic issues.
"Voters don't tend to focus on who's got what chairmanship," Mr. Sestak said, but he argued that a larger concern was whether Mr. Specter would prove to be a reliably Democratic voice in the longer term on issues such as health care and the economy.
Mr. Lamb said the seniority issues wouldn't influence his consideration of the race.
"I'm more troubled by this sense of entitlement to his job that he's demonstrated again and again," he said.
Mr. Specter was scheduled to appear on "Larry King Live" last night but canceled yesterday afternoon. An aide acknowledged that the timing of the decision looked bad, but insisted that it was coincidental, explaining Mr. Specter had opted to have dinner with his wife, Joan, who would be in Washington overnight.
Politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.