Posted by Ruth Conniff on April 28, 2009

With Arlen Specter's announcement today that he will switch parties, the Democrats gain a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate--assuming Al Franken is ever allowed to sit down. That significantly changes the landscape for the Obama Administration.

For progressives who have been alternately cheered and disappointed by Obama's agenda, it means an opportunity to press the President to do the right thing on civll liberties and economic issues. There is no longer any excuse for a cautious, compromising approach on fundamental issues. The Administration has the votes to get a progressive agenda passed--and should be reminded of that fact at every opportunity.

The two areas where Obama has exhibited a mixture of progressive impulses and disappointing results are civil liberties and the economy.

On civil liberties, the President issued a series of bracing statements and executive orders sweeping away the secrecy, torture, and contempt for the Constitution of the Bush era. He declared a return to humane, lawful treatment of detainees and the closing of Guantanamo Bay. But he has also been reluctant to do away with extralegal detentions in Afghanistan, has embraced the "state secrets" rationale of the Bush Administration for refusing to allow victims of torture their day in court, and has moved to dismiss lawsuits against the government and telecommunications companies for warrantless wiretapping.

On the economy, Obama has declared a major shift in national priorities with his stimulus bill--doubling funding for community health care centers and early childhood education, and investing in infrastructure and job creation despite the Bush-created deficit that has deficit hawks calling for cuts in government spending. But the stimulus is only half as big as it needs to be to turn the economy around, according to economists Dean Baker and Paul Krugman. And Obama is dumping trillions into a wasteful bailout of Wall Street that may swamp any hope of sustained social spending.

Democrats and progressives in Washington report that Obama is smart, receptive, and has his heart in the right place. So pushing him to do the right thing--as he did when he responded to an ACLU FOIA by releasing Bush Administration torture memos--is crucial.

Specter's party switch gives advocates another good argument: Obama has the votes to get progressive legislation passed.

Specter himself also shows a willingness to listen to progressive arguments. Reliably liberal on social issues, on both civil liberties and economic justice, he, like Obama, is a mixed blessing.

In a recent press release opposing the idea of a special commission to investigate Bush era torture, Specter wrote:

“I am opposed to the commission idea because all of the facts are readily available to the Department of Justice. As I have said before, once the Administration has a key to the front door, which they’ve had for several months, all they have to do is find the right filing cabinets and open them, which they’re already doing.

“This matter has already received the personal attention of the President and the Attorney General. I think the President is correct in saying that we ought to be looking forward and that you shouldn’t prosecute people who operated in good faith relying on competent legal counsel.

“If there is evidence of criminality, then the Attorney General has the full authority and should prosecute it. But going after the prior administration sounds like something they do in Latin America in banana republics.”

Like Obama, Specter leaves open the door to prosecuting Bush Administration officials, while at the same time insisting on the "looking forward" soundbite that Obama has used to try to avoid getting caught up in investigations of Bush Administration crimes.

Specter has earned both cheers and boos from civil libertarians throughout his career. He voted "yes" on a Sense of the Senate resolution that Guantanamo Bay prisoners should not be released into this country or into detention facilities on U.S. soil. And the ACLU objected to Specter's 2007 amendment that would have made the Bush Administration, not telecom companies, defendants in FISA lawsuits, saying it was a fig leaf for impunity for domestic spying. On the other hand, Specter voted yes on a 2006 Habeas Review Amendment, striking language in a bill that prevented any court or judge from hearing a writ of habeas corpus from someone detained by the U.S. military. And he has been an outspoken critic of the misuse of Presidential signing statements and other abuses of executive power. Overall, he received a 43 percent rating from the ACLU last year.

On the crucial issue of the bank bailout, Specter's record is also mixed.

He voted for the initial $700 billion bailout for the financial industry in October 2008, but issued a statement explaining that he did so "reluctantly," since he was aware of the risky behavior of the banks and the failure of regulators, but also was concerned about staving off worldwide financial collapse. Later, it came to light that his wife's firm, Bancorp, benefited directly from the bailout, to the tune of $45.2 million. Joan Specter has been a director and stockholder at Bancorp for the last ten years, the Pittsburgh Trib reported.

However, Specter voted against the next $350 billion in bailout funds, citing lack of oversight and transparency.

As Specter's colleague Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent, democratic socialist from Vermont, puts it, “In terms of the financial system, [Obama] has gone back to the same old Wall Street crowd responsible for the deregulatory efforts that got us where we are today.” Sanders met with the President a month ago to talk about the bailout and has introduced legislation to expand the jurisdiction of the Congressional Oversight Panel led by Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren to probe the roots of the financial crisis. “The American people want to hold people accountable and we haven’t done that yet, to be frank with you,” Sanders says. He has sponsored an amendment that requires greater transparency at the Federal Reserve Bank. And he is calling for a cap on interest rates on credit cards of 15 percent. Soon, he plans to introduce legislation to “find institutions that are ‘too big to fail’ and start breaking them up.” “We are going to be in the middle of a fight to bring back Glass-Steagall and to deal with all the deregulatory efforts I opposed in the House,” says Sanders.

"What you've got is a President who is very, very smart," says Sanders. "And I think if progressives throughout the country say, ‘We like what you are doing, but we have real concerns about the bailout,’ he will hear that.”

The same might be said of Specter, who will have to get through a Democratic primary next year.

And now that Specter's switch has given the President even more power to do the right thing, it is time for progressives to make their voices heard.