The Boston Phoenix November 16 - 23, 2000


The Mod Squad

With Congress split down the middle, New England's block of moderate senators will be more influential than ever

After Arizona Senator John McCain trounced Texas governor George W. Bush in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries, all the national pundits dismissed New England as a political anomaly. They were right -- just look at the region's odd mix of liberal Democratic and moderate Republican senators, with a socialist congressman and independent governor thrown in. But with the Senate deadlocked and the presidential popular vote split 48-48, New England-style politics could come back in vogue for the nation as a whole.

However the current battle over Florida is resolved, one fact will remain unaltered: the new president will face the most evenly divided Senate in recent history. If George W. Bush becomes president and Democrat Maria Cantwell prevails in Washington state, the Senate will be split 50-50. If Al Gore becomes president, a Republican replaces Joseph Lieberman in his Connecticut Senate seat, and Cantwell loses, Republicans will hold only a 52-48 margin in the Senate. In either case, the members of New England's Senate delegation will gain more clout.

New England's senatorial muscle will become stronger in two ways. First, the block of moderate New England Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Jim Jeffords of Vermont -- will hold the balance of the Senate, meaning that both sides will try to woo their votes. Second, Massachusetts's seasoned senators -- John Kerry and Ted Kennedy -- will be able to use their seniority and their skills to push their respective agendas forward and reap goodies for the region.

But much more than Senate inside baseball is at stake. The New England senators will be at the crux of legislation involving education, health-care reform, and Social Security. And the new president will have to be especially mindful that moderate Republicans probably will not approve judicial appointments they see as too extreme on the right or the left.

"Four of the most important people in the Senate are going to be Snowe, Collins, Jeffords, and Chafee," says Peter Meade, a Boston-based political analyst. "If you're a Republican putting something together, you want to make sure you keep them on the reservation. If you're a Democrat trying to do something, you want to make sure you get them."

With the death last year of Chafee's father John, who had served in the Senate for 23 years, pundits on the right and left proclaimed the end of liberal Rockefeller Republicanism. But this year's closely divided Senate means that what was once thought to be a dinosaur of American politics may be more important than ever. For example, Snowe, Collins, Jeffords, and Chafee are all pro-choice. GOP activists may have been eager to purge such apostasy from their ranks, but the new Senate dynamics mean that they can't. And the members know it.

"It's going to produce more bipartisanship," says Collins. "Moderates such as myself will have an even greater role because we will hold the balance of power on so many issues. It's going to be the only way to get things done."

One bipartisan gesture has already taken place: Snowe telephoned newly elected Michigan senator Deborah Stabenow, a Democrat, to welcome her to the Senate. Snowe had supported the Republican incumbent, Spencer Abraham. "I think everybody is going to recognize right away the old Republican Party doesn't have the votes," says Chafee.

Gitell1 In the past session, Republicans held an eight-seat advantage, but political gridlock was the dominant dynamic. And even in these partisan times, there was some precedent for cooperation. Last spring, a group of moderate Republican and Democratic senators met in the back halls of the Capitol and tried to reach agreement on a new education bill. Among others, Democratic senators Lieberman, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, John Edwards of North Carolina, and Bob Graham of Florida huddled with Republican senators, including Collins, Jeffords, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Both sides agreed on more funding for low-income students, but could not agree on the formula to distribute these funds. The effort ultimately failed, but the new Senate may be able to build on bipartisan impulses like the ones this group displayed.

The education discussions, in particular, bode well for the new session. "We kept it quiet because there's a greater chance of success for these things if they're not in the paper every day," says Collins, optimistic about the experience. "It really could be the start of something." The bottom line is that hope of passing anything on the domestic agenda hinges on moderate Republicans' making common cause with the Democrats. Topping the agenda are the changes that polls taken during the primary season and the general election showed the public clamoring for: adding prescription-drug benefits to Medicare and making improvements in education and Social Security.

This analysis assumes that the heated battle for Florida's 25 electoral votes doesn't spoil the environment in the Senate before the next session even starts. "I'm very concerned that it's going to leave a bad taste in people's mouths," Collins says. "I really hope it won't. I really want there to be a fresh start here in Washington."

It won't take much for partisan bitterness to break out. Chafee, who voted with the Democrats more than any other Republican last year, according to Congressional Quarterly, points out that it takes 60 senators to stop an irate senator from launching a filibuster. Given that neither party is likely to muster such a block, Chafee notes that a conservative senator could filibuster to block progress in the Senate. A liberal senator could do the same.

Even so, the New England moderates could have a major influence on Supreme Court nominations. Either Bush or Gore will have to tailor his picks to meet the desires of this moderate faction. That means (sorry, conservatives) no Antonin Scalias or Clarence Thomases. And if Gore becomes president, no Larry Tribes or Alan Dershowitzes, either. Expect more nominations along the lines of Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "If you take Jeffords, Chafee, Snowe, and Collins out of the Republican majority and flip them to the Democrats, you reverse the majority," says E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There's less party discipline imposed on people with Supreme Court nominations."

One other nomination will be affected by the next congressional session's narrow divide: should Gore become president, look for a member of the Mod Squad to be appointed to his cabinet. Clinton made this type of bipartisan gesture when he named moderate Republican senator William Cohen of Maine as his secretary of defense. A Gore administration would want a similar veneer of bipartisanship, notes Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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