WASHINGTON — Sen. Arlen Specter received a hero's welcome at the White House on Wednesday, while the Republican Party he left behind continued to grapple with the implications of his defection.
Specter stunned his colleagues Tuesday by announcing he would run as a Democrat in next year's Pennsylvania Senate primary, further decimating the ranks of a party whose popularity has been waning in recent years.
As Specter was greeted warmly by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, many in his old party pushed to paint him as a political opportunist and argued that his move did not reflect a wholesale public rejection of the GOP.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele sent e-mails to supporters that called Specter an unprincipled "Benedict Arnold" and echoed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who on Tuesday had labeled the five-term Pennsylvania senator's move a purely political decision.
But Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans in the chamber, pushed back at that assessment -- warning that the party is in deep denial about its fading political fortunes.
"I don't think it was a constructive response, frankly," Snowe said of Republican reactions in an interview with MSNBC. "I think that we as a party and our leaders have to recognize the reality of the situation that we're facing when we've lost 13 Senate seats [and] more than 50 House seats in the last two elections."
Snowe accused the party of nurturing a "culture of opposition" against moderates and said leaders must "reorient the philosophy and the views and the foundations of the Republican Party that really [have] disaffected and alienated so many Americans, including mainstream Republicans who have left our party."
Specter, 79, a moderate who supports abortion rights and is known for his independence, made similar remarks about the state of the party Tuesday. At the White House on Wednesday, he offered his services to Obama, saying, "I think I can be of assistance to you, Mr. President."
His office was flooded with calls following the switch, aides said, with the bulk of callers lauding his decision.
Recent polls have shown that about one-fourth of voters nationally now identify themselves as Republicans. And the majority of those want to see the party become more conservative.
On his radio program Tuesday, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh celebrated Specter's departure and joked that he should have taken Arizona Sen. John McCain and his daughter, Meghan, with him.
"We're weeding out people who aren't really Republicans," Limbaugh said.
Since last year's presidential campaign, Meghan McCain has become a growing voice for young Republicans who would like to see the party chart a new course. Her Twitter page has 31,000 followers.
"In my Republican Party there is room for everyone," she wrote Tuesday. "I am not saying to Christian conservatives, 'There is no place for you.' I am saying, 'Please stop saying there is no place for us.' "
For most Senate Republicans, life after Specter's announcement wasn't all that different Wednesday as they, along with House colleagues, voted en masse against a congressional budget resolution that pledged new investments in healthcare and education.
Specter, who technically is a Republican until he submits new voter registration forms, also voted against it.
The budget vote is likely to provide fodder for critics who say the GOP has allowed itself to be characterized as a purely oppositional force that offers no new ideas.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters that Specter's move wouldn't greatly alter the dynamic of the Senate despite putting Democrats closer to a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators.
"I can't see that it's going to make a great deal of difference, because he was not a dependable Republican when we needed him," Grassley said.