Senate's third-party caucus restores power to the center

The deal to avert a change in Senate cloture rules is more than just a temporary outbreak of sanity in this highly charged partisan accelerator chamber. It amounts to a transfer of leadership from the polarized, party leaders to the narrow but critical center of the institution. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) still has the corner office, and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) still has the key to the executive washroom, but it is the 14 senators who crafted this deal who now are the people to see in the Senate.

The deal to avert a change in Senate cloture rules is more than just a temporary outbreak of sanity in this highly charged partisan accelerator chamber. It amounts to a transfer of leadership from the polarized, party leaders to the narrow but critical center of the institution.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) still has the corner office, and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) still has the key to the executive washroom, but it is the 14 senators who crafted this deal who now are the people to see in the Senate. Few realized that when the Republicans garnered 55 seats in the elections of 2004 it did not represent a gain toward achieving cloture as much as it set the stage for a transfer of leadership.

Now it takes just as many renegades from the left to break a filibuster as it does from the right to pass a bill. This parity is conferring tremendous power on the moderates. Although there are very few of them, these centrists can now stand to achieve a great deal of power.

During the Clinton years, for example, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) reveled in his ability to represent the handful of centrist Democrats who agreed with the president’s vision. But now, the defections from the polarizing agenda of the leaders are broader and more equally distributed between the parties.

The number of centrist dealmakers — 14 — is also worthy of comment. It must have been designed so that no single senator could be blamed for the deal by his or her leaders. Strictly speaking, only six would have been needed to stop Vice President Cheney from casting the deciding vote in favor of orthodoxy. But each side anted up seven members so that nobody had to take the rap.

The motives of the 14 are interesting. On the Republican side, Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee and Arizona’s John McCain are the usual suspects when one comes up with a list of sane moderates. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham has always been on the verge of a leap into moderation, restrained only by the state that he represents.

But Mike DeWine (Ohio) and John Warner (Va.)? Neither is part of the usual crowd. Arlen Specter (R-Pa) would be more like it, but he was doubtless paralyzed by his aspiration to stay as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. DeWine, who is brilliant, and Warner, who is not, bear watching. Something may be up!

On the Democratic side, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman leads the ranks of moderates. Unfortunately, he has no followers. So where did Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Dan Inouye (Hawaii), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La), Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) come from?

Byrd we can discount. He probably voted to sustain the filibuster in case a new civil-rights bill comes down the pike. After all, it was his legendary 14-hour talkathon to kill the 1964 bill that still resonates in our memory.

But the others? Could this be part of Pryor realizing that he comes from Arkansas and Landrieu that she hails from Louisiana? Could they be gun shy after watching five Southern seats go Republican in 2004? Nelson may have his eye on the drubbing neighboring South Dakota gave party hardliner Tom Daschle, and Salazar may be thinking of his narrow margin of victory. Let’s hope so? Inouye? Search me.

But whatever their motives, let’s celebrate the fact that there now exists, in effect, a third-party caucus in the Senate of moderates from both parties. They may offer a chance for us to be rid of the reflexive and revolting partisanship that has led to government shutdowns and presidential impeachments, each equally abhorrent to most voters.

We can only hope that this new middle of the Senate will take the agenda away from the extremes in each party and bring government back to the middle, where it belongs.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.

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