By Alexander Bolton - 04/22/10 12:52 AM EDT
Senate Republican centrists have stayed close to the GOP leadership for much of the past 14 months, throwing off the Democrats’ legislative strategy for the 111th Congress.
Maine Sens. Susan Collins (R) and Olympia Snowe (R) have shown surprising solidarity with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in opposing a Democratic Wall Street reform bill, forcing Democrats to reopen negotiations.
Democratic senators describe that strategy as putting together legislation with few concessions to the GOP and then running a full-court press on Snowe, Collins and a few other centrists to win 60 votes.
But Democrats have been forced to consider compromises in the financial regulatory reform bill thanks to Snowe’s and Collins’s holdout. A Democrat close to the negotiations said Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) would probably drop a proposal to create a $50 billion fund — supplied by major banks — to pay for the orderly liquidation of troubled financial institutions.
Democrats are also considering letting prudential regulators, such as the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, enforce new regulations designed to protect consumers, according to another Democratic source.
Liberals wanted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to enforce those new rules.
Democrats say they are disappointed that Collins and Snowe have not become the legislative partners expected at the start of President Barack Obama’s term.
“There are no more Jack Javitses,” lamented a Democratic senator, speaking of former Sen. Jacob Javits, the liberal Republican from New York who served in the 1970s.
The lawmaker expressed disappointment but declined to criticize either Snowe or Collins for fear of creating even more distance between them and the Democratic Conference.
Spokesmen for the two senators have questioned the Democrats’ strategy.
“Why is that the strategy, instead of trying to create meaningful bipartisan consensus?” said John Gentzel, a spokesman for Snowe. “The last election was based on moving past partisan politics. This doesn’t seem post-partisan to me.”
Gentzel said Snowe “has always done what is in the best interests of her constituents and for the country during her 30-year career.”
Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins, said if Democrats are trying to pass Wall Street reform by picking off one or two Republicans, “it would seem that is a problem in Washington right now.”
“Sen. Collins believes that both parties should be working together to pass legislation that can garner wide bipartisan support,” he said.
McConnell has kept his caucus together by reminding the lawmakers, along with the rest of the GOP conference, that if they don’t maintain unity, the party loses all leverage with Obama.
“McConnell has pointed out that if we don’t hang together, we’re going to hang separately, not just on the financial regulatory bill but on every other bill coming down the pike,” said a Republican senator.
The Republican senator said he believes that Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), another centrist Republican from New England, has influenced Snowe and Collins this year. The senator said that Brown has often stood up during GOP meetings and pledged to stand with colleagues against what Brown calls flawed Democratic policy, even as he acknowledges the political difficulties it may cause back home.
Liberals who have watched Snowe and Collins closely this Congress say they are deeply disappointed that they have done little to help advance Obama’s agenda.
“When you look at Snowe and Collins, they are particularly disappointing,” said Michael J. Wilson, national director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a liberal advocacy group.
Except for the $787 billion economic stimulus they supported at the beginning of 2009, the Maine lawmakers have stuck with their leader on the biggest issues: healthcare reform, the public option, the so-called cramdown provision of credit-card reform, the Employee Free Choice Act and now Wall Street reform.
“They vote their consciences unless McConnell needs them,” said Wilson. “He always gets their votes when he needs them, with the exception of the stimulus.”
The ADA on Tuesday unveiled a 65 percent rating for both Snowe and Collins. That’s a 15-point drop for Snowe, who earned an 80 percent rating in 2008. Collins, who earned a 75 percent rating in 2008, dropped 10 points.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have boosted their assessment of the Maine senators.
The American Conservative Union raised Snowe’s rating by 36 points between 2008 and 2009. Collins’s conservative rating surged by 28 points after Obama took office.
This trend has proven a headache for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Democratic leaders who have crafted the legislative and political strategy for passing Obama’s agenda.
Democratic senators, at the urging of White House officials, cut off talks with Republican negotiators on Wall Street reform in March. The talks had gone on for months and White House strategists calculated that centrist Republicans would be scared to vote against the reform bill at a time of strong public anger toward Wall Street.
Larry Hart, the director of government relations at the American Conservative Union, who has watched the Maine lawmakers closely, said hardball tactics usually backfire with them.
“You can’t intimidate them; it produces an opposite reaction from what is intended,” he said.
The administration has tried to pursue the same plan it did during the healthcare reform debate, holding one-on-one meetings with Snowe and Collins to win their support.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner met with both lawmakers on Monday. Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council, met with Snowe on Wednesday.
But so far, Collins and Snowe have resisted invitations to join the Democrats and bring Dodd’s bill to the floor.
However, lawmakers close to the negotiations say a lot of progress has been made in recent days and a bipartisan agreement could come as soon as next week.
“We’ve resolved a number of things,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee, declining to discuss details.
Democrats won an important victory Wednesday when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voted for legislation to regulate derivatives during a markup in the Agriculture Committee.
But while negotiators are closing in on an agreement, a GOP aide said there is no rush to speed Obama’s agenda through the Senate.
While Republican leaders may not be able to stop a Democratic Wall Street reform bill they call seriously “flawed,” they hope to take as much time off the calendar as possible.
“We need to get it right, not necessarily get it done in a big hurry,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who suggested the Senate wait until the independent Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission issues its report on the 2008 financial meltdown.