Sen. Arlen Specter sought to minimize any political damage Wednesday after fellow Democrats decided against honoring the 28 years' seniority he accumulated as a Republican before switching parties last week.
In a statement, Specter expressed confidence that beginning in 2011, "my seniority will be maintained under the arrangement I worked out with" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., before switching.
Specter said last week he and Reid had agreed he would be treated for seniority purposes as though he had been elected as a Democrat when he first came to the Senate in 1980. The issue has important ramifications because chairmanships, which come with money to hire large staffs, can be at stake.
Reid aides say the majority leader did not make a flat commitment to honor the Pennsylvania lawmaker's seniority, telling him he would try but the issue would have to go before the Democratic rank-and-file.
Reid told CNN on Wednesday that Specter remains a senior member of the Senate, and that in the Senate, "we kind of exaggerate where people sit."
'Make him happy'
"I think everyone should just kind of relax and understand he's a Democrat," Reid said. "We're doing our best to try to make him happy as a Democrat. I think he is."
On Tuesday night, hours after the Democrats' weekly luncheon, the Senate passed a resolution that made Specter the most junior Democrat on the committees on which he serves. The resolution was passed after an agreement was reached between leadership in both parties and Specter, said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid.
The vote also came as an interview circulated in which Specter said he backed Republican Norm Coleman over Democrat Al Franken in the unresolved Minnesota Senate race. Franken has a lead of 312 votes after a recount and a trial, but Coleman, who was the incumbent, has asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to count additional ballots.
In an interview to be published in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Specter was asked if he was concerned that if Coleman — who is Jewish — lost, that there would no longer be a Jewish Republican in the Senate.
"There's still time for the Minnesota courts to do justice and declare Norm Coleman the winner," said Specter, who is Jewish. He later said he misspoke.
Reid told CNN that when he asked Specter about the remark, Specter said, "I forgot what team I was on."
In his statement, Specter said some members of the Democratic 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."
When he announced his party switch, Specter told reporters his seniority would continue in the Senate, but details such as committee chairmanships had not been worked out.
"In discussing that issue with Senator Reid, the fair approach which we both agreed to was to be where I would be had I been a Democrat coming into the Senate with my election in 1980. So you can take a look at the charts and figure out exactly where I'd be," Specter said.
But Reid, at his own news conference, said Specter understands that "no one will be dumped off a full committee or subcommittee unless it's done on some voluntary basis. Of course in a year and a half, as we start every Congress, it's a new game."
On Wednesday, Rob Gleason, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said in a statement that Specter is finding "the grass is not always greener on the other side."
Specter, 79, is seeking a sixth term next year. He has said he made the decision to end his four-decade relationship with the Republican Party because he was unlikely to win the nomination in a party that has grown increasingly conservative.
Specter serves on the Appropriations, Judiciary, Veterans Affairs, Environment and Public Works, and Special Aging committees.
Specter, a former Philadelphia prosecutor, had been the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which is preparing for hearings on a Supreme Court nominee to replace the retiring Justice David Souter. When Republicans were in the majority, Specter chaired the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. He now will have to wait in line to question the nominee.
Specter also was the top Republican on the subcommittee that funds the National Institutes of Health. The issue is an important personal one for him because he has twice battled cancer.