Washington's new power fulcrum: a few senators

A cabal of centrists is forcing compromise from the White House and party leaders.

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After three months of a new government in Washington, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Much of the power in the nation's capital now resides with a handful of centrists in the US Senate.

It is an unlikely cabal - one a frumpy senator from Rhode Island who, on most days, looks like he slept in his suit. Another is a soft-spoken dealmaker from Louisiana with a cajun accent. A third is a former lawyer from the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Everyone knew, with the Senate divided 50-50, that governing in the nation's capital this year would be an exercise in delicate diplomacy. But, in fact, it is turning out to be as unpredictable as the Nasdaq.

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On economic policy, in particular, this unlikely band of centrists is emerging as the primary arbiter. Their authority is forcing the White House - and even the majority leaders of both parties - into unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable compromises. It may be also giving rise to a new kind of politics in Congress - one based on moment-by-moment coalition-building rather than traditional party fealty.

The group's clout will be on display this week when President Bush's new budget is formally unveiled. It was certainly in evidence last week, in a moment of high drama over the president's preliminary budget outline.

While leaders of both parties and the White House declared victory after Friday's 65-to-35 Senate vote on the budget resolution, it was the centrists who held the high ground when the arm-twisting was over. They succeeded in lopping some $450 billion off Mr. Bush's signature tax-cut proposal - and adding about the same amount to the highest cut Democratic leaders said they could accept.

"Now, the president has to roll up his sleeves and do some hard bargaining with members of Congress," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior analyst for the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

Surprise defection

It had been partisan hardball as usual, until moderate Republicans began splitting the president's program. Early on, the vote appeared likely to go along party lines, with just two defectors - Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island and Zell Miller (D) of Georgia - cancelling one another other out.

But when Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont announced he would also vote against Bush's $1.6 trillion cut, that strategy collapsed. He and other centrists made clear that their goal in coming out now against the president's plan was to make sure that the culture of Washington changes from partisan sniping to real negotiation.

"The president said he wanted to change the culture in Washington," said Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, who led the centrist uprising in the Senate. "But getting the budget passed with a one-vote margin or with the vice president breaking a tie does nothing to change the culture."

The new dynamic in the Senate is already spilling over into the House, where moderate Republicans are reopening the budget debate among their own members. Many GOP centrists had strong reservations about a tax cut as high as $1.6 trillion, but said they voted for the measure to "get the process started" in the Senate.

Where it goes from here

During the congressional recess, starting this week, members of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership will be in their home districts finding out how strong a stance they can take in following the Senate moderates. They say they do not want to undercut the new president, especially at the beginning of his administration. But many also welcome the opportunity to scale back the tax cut.

Next, the action shifts to negotiations between Senate and House conferees, to try to reconcile the two plans. Republican conservatives say they can restore the full $1.6 trillion tax cut in conference committee, where Republicans hold a slight edge. But Democrats say that today's release of details in the president's budget will boost their case that projected tax cuts are still too high and will force deep cuts in programs Americans want or value.

But Senate centrists insist they still hold the deciding votes. "We were able to encourage both of our parties to establish a process where the views of all ... are considered," says Senator Breaux. "While the numbers will change, our coalition will not."

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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