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'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.
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
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.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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