specter522b.jpgWhen Arlen Specter originally switched parties, I didn't think it meant much for health reform. So far as Republicans went, Specter was a likely get. His switch to the Democratic side made him yet likelier. But it was hard to say anything more definitive than that.

Since then, Barack Obama and Arlen Specter have both dropped hints that their conversations are considerably advanced on one issue in particular: Health care. At last night's press conference, Obama was asked about Specter's defection. He spent a couple minutes echoing Arlen on Arlen: He's not a rubber stamp, long and distinguished record, streak of independence, etc. But then Obama said something telling:

I do think that having Arlen Specter in the Dem Caucus will liberate him to cooperate on critical issues like health care, like infrastructure and job creation, areas where his inclination was to work with us but he was feeling pressure not to.

That doesn't read like a speculative comment. It reads like Specter told Obama that "his inclination was to work with us but he was feeling pressure not to." Which suggests, in turn, that he's a solid vote on health reform. Or at least inclined to be.

Arlen Specter has had a tough few years. In 2005, he was diagnosed with an advanced form of Hodgkin's lymphoma. Chemotherapy took months. His hair fell out. His friend John Sununu shaved his own head in solidarity. But treatment was successful, or seemed so. In 2008, however, the cancer returned. His second round of treatment ended last July. It's been, in other words, a few years of the sort that leave you rather impressed with the importance of health care coverage. And that seems to have been Specter's takeaway. In his press conference yesterday, he ticked off his interests in this order: "I’ve been deeply involved in health care reform, and global warming, climate control, and immigration, and will continue to be so." A paragraph later, he said that "one matter that especially concerns me is medical research."

And it's not just rhetoric. When Specter helped broker the stimulus deal, he took a special interest in funding medical research. His centrality to the compromise was singularly responsible for $10 billion going to the National Institute of Health.

If you had told me three months ago that you could guarantee Specter's vote on health care reform, I'd have probably thought that enough to pass the bill. It's true, of course, that his vote probably had more cache when it came from a Republican. But a vote is a vote.