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Biomedical Research Stalwart Arlen Specter Switches Parties …

… to the Democratic Party in a move aimed at retaining his U.S. Senate seat. Specter, a huge proponent of biomedical research and the force behind the $10.4 billion for NIH in the recent stimulus package, was facing long odds in a primary fight next year in his home state of Pennsylvania. Specter, a former chair of the spending panel that allocates the NIH budget, already had enormous clout as one of a handful of moderate Republicans who could exchange his vote for goodies and help Democrats get legislation through. Now he stands a chance to become one of the most powerful Dems in Congress, which can only mean good news for fans of biomedical research funding. No word yet on his committee assignments, which will determine his control over the purse strings.

"We retain and see strengthened one of our strongest champions for NIH and biomedical research in the U.S. senate," says Patrick White of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C.

Analysis and full statement by Specter after the jump …

But the decision makes support for medical science a bit less bipartisan. "Specter has always been there for us. This removes our strongest Republican supporter in Congress for biomedical research." The community will no doubt court others in the GOP to take up the mantle, including Orrin Hatch (R–UT), who's already a strong friend.

Specter's statement (see section in italics):

Statement by Senator Arlen Specter

I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the Party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view. While I have been comfortable being a Republican, my Party has not defined who I am. I have taken each issue one at a time and have exercised independent judgment to do what I thought was best for Pennsylvania and the nation.

Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.

When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party. But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing.

Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.

I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.

I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election.

I deeply regret that I will be disappointing many friends and supporters. I can understand their disappointment. I am also disappointed that so many in the Party I have worked for for more than four decades do not want me to be their candidate. It is very painful on both sides. I thank specially Senators McConnell and Cornyn for their forbearance.

I am not making this decision because there are no important and interesting opportunities outside the Senate. I take on this complicated run for re-election because I am deeply concerned about the future of our country and I believe I have a significant contribution to make on many of the key issues of the day, especially medical research. NIH funding has saved or lengthened thousands of lives, including mine, and much more needs to be done. And my seniority is very important to continue to bring important projects vital to Pennsylvania’s economy.

I am taking this action now because there are fewer than thirteen months to the 2010 Pennsylvania Primary and there is much to be done in preparation for that election. Upon request, I will return campaign contributions contributed during this cycle.