Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) said yesterday that the White House offered him a federal job in an effort to dissuade him from challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in the state's Democratic primary.
The disclosure came during an afternoon taping of Larry Kane: Voice of Reason, a Sunday news-analysis show on the Comcast Network. Sestak would not elaborate on the circumstances and seemed chagrined after blurting out "yes" to veteran news anchor Kane's direct question.
"Was it secretary of the Navy?" Kane asked.
"No comment," Sestak said.
"Was it [the job] high-ranking?" Kane asked. Sestak said yes, but added that he would "never leave" the Senate race for a deal.
A White House spokesman this morning strongly denied an offer had been made to Sestak. Before the spokesman issued the denial, a senior Pennsylvania Democrat said Sestak's account was met with anger by White House officials yesterday.
After yesterday's taping, Sestak said he recalled the White House offer coming in July, as he was preparing to formally announce his Senate candidacy in August. He declined to identify who spoke to him or the job under discussion. Sestak also would not say whether the person who approached him worked for the administration or was an intermediary for the offer.
"I'm not going to say who or how and what was offered," Sestak said in an interview. "I don't feel it's appropriate to go beyond what I said," because the conversation was confidential.
Sestak, 58, a retired Navy admiral, has said that some Pennsylvania Democratic leaders have tried to entice him to drop his campaign with promises of support for other offices in the future. He also has said that Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, urged him to run when Specter was still a Republican, then tried to force him out after Specter switched parties.
But Sestak has brushed aside talk of White House pressure.
"He asked me the question, and I had to answer it honestly," Sestak said of his exchange with Kane. Sestak said he had declined the job offer immediately and added, "The person said, 'I knew you'd say that.' "
It's no secret that leading Democrats are backing Specter, a five-term incumbent who switched from the GOP last spring, soon after providing the critical vote for President Obama's $787 billion stimulus program.
Obama endorsed Specter at the White House and has raised money for him. Gov. Rendell has been vocal in calling Sestak's challenge harmful to the party, as has state chairman T.J. Rooney.
Party leaders are worried that an expensive primary could weaken an incumbent Democratic senator in what is shaping up to be a Republican year, and also about the possibility of losing the House seat that Sestak won in 2006. He is only the second Democrat since the Civil War to represent the Delaware County-centered Seventh District.
An added concern: possibly losing the seat in Harrisburg occupied by the leading Democratic candidate to replace Sestak in Congress, State Rep. Bryan Lentz. Democrats have a 104-99 majority in the state House; control of the chamber is crucial with Pennsylvania expected to lose a congressional district next year in the reapportionment that follows the census.
Still, Sestak's account was startling.
"Clearly, the offers are made," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor who specializes in Congress. "When a White House wants to preempt a challenge, they'll dangle something. But it is almost never uttered."
In addition, Baker said, conversations in such cases are nuanced, and savvy operators know not to use explicit quid pro quo language.
He said he could not, off hand, think of another instance in which a candidate has divulged an approach from White House officials. Baker said that, in theory, that might be an advantageous gambit for a candidate who, like Sestak, is positioning his campaign as an outsider and wants to demonstrate that "the big guys" are worried about the challenge.
Nachama Soloveichik, spokeswoman for former Rep. Pat Toomey, the leading GOP candidate for the Senate seat, said she had no information on Sestak's story but added: "It's just like Arlen Specter to get an insider Washington deal to try to save his political career."
Christopher Nicholas, Specter's campaign manager, declined to comment on the report or the Toomey campaign comment.
Last week, after Sestak received nominating petitions for the House from the Pennsylvania secretary of state, talk buzzed in political circles that he would give up the Senate race and run for reelection.
He says he is running only for the Senate, and volunteers are circulating nominating petitions for that office.
Legally, Sestak could circulate two sets of petitions, and experts say there is no prohibition on running for two offices simultaneously.
Larry Kane: Voice of Reason is set to air Sunday at 9:30 p.m.; audio of the interview will be on the KYW NewsRadio Web site tomorrow. The show will be rebroadcast at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.