WASHINGTON — After a decade of power shifting steadily to party leaders, a new thing is at work in the US Congress: the reemergence of a center that counts.
Its beginnings are as dramatic as they are fragile. At the 11th hour, a bipartisan coalition - many of whom had never worked together - emerged to change the course of Senate history this week, as they challenged their leaders' decisions to move to a bruising procedural battle over the confirmation of judicial nominees.
On its face, their agreement simply averts a change in Senate rules on debate over nominees. But the deal's impact goes beyond the courts.
Although it can hardly be said that a dozen centrist renegades now rule Capitol HIll, this week may have witnessed the birth of a new Senate, in which rank and file members have rising clout. The dynamic could affect everything from President Bush's agenda to the tenor of America's red-blue political divide. At the very least, it gives new impetus to centrist bids to challenge the White House and party leaders on issues ranging from Social Security and fiscal discipline to revision of federal policy on stem-cell research.
"We're willing to negotiate, to cut deals. That's what we did this week in the Senate," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Mainstreet Partnership, a centrist group with 68 members in the Senate and House.
It was a rare Senate moment of comity. For days before the deal, senators had lobbed verbal hand grenades across the aisles. The leaders, backed by powerful outside interest groups, said a showdown was inevitable.
Instead, the center held. The deal, announced late Monday, sparked talk of betrayal from groups who had poured millions into a fight that fizzled. What was not expected was a critical mass of senators willing to commit to an ongoing effort to hold the line for moderation in the judge wars - and, some senators hope, in other fights to come.
"This is one of those rare moments in which some legislators are able to put the national interest before ideological petty and partisan interests. It may only last a few hours," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist and aide to Sen. John McCain, now with the Democratic Leadership Council.
The compromisers ranged from the most senior member of the chamber, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, to the most junior, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas, No. 100 in seniority. What motivated them, they said, was a conviction that the Senate must not lose what is most distinct about it: respect for debate and the rights of minorities. But what made the deal possible was trust, said senators most directly involved.
A test of that trust could come early. The agreement hinges on a commitment that future nominees should only be filibustered "under extraordinary circumstances." Negotiators worked long and hard to define "extraordinary," but in the end settled on the clause that "each signatory must use his or her own discretion and judgment in determining whether such circumstances exist."
Pressed on this point in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a leader in negotiating the compromise, said that the 14 senators, not the full Senate, will make the call: "We have 14 of us who are together and I am confident we will act in a way that if the circumstances are extraordinary, everybody will agree to that," he said.
"The White House needs to talk to us more, and they will," added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday.
The emergence of a muscular center in a highly partisan environment throws a new element into preparations for 2006 elections, say activists on both sides. The White House and conservative activists wanted the Senate to change its rules, to remove the filibuster from Democrats' arsenal before a battle over a Supreme Court nominee, which could come as early as this summer.
At the same time, retaliation by Democrats would have cast them in the politically perilous role of obstructionists.
"The so-called deal blurs the distinction between Republicans and Democrats," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative antitax group. "It's best to have the Democrats filibustering or slowing things down so that people visibly see that that's the case going into 2006," he adds.
On the other side, many activists aligned with Democrats see the deal as a betrayal. Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, worries that about the new limitations on the use of filibusters.
"Will saving women's lives, women's rights, and civil rights be considered such an 'extraordinary' circumstance? If the records of the three anti women's rights, anti civil rights nominees who will receive a vote of confirmation under the deal are to be the standard, then these rights are in grave peril," she said, after meeting informally with Democratic senators Monday.
But for the 14 senators brokering the deal, attacks from outside groups are only confirmation that they are on ground worth defending. They say they expect anger from such groups, and even constituents, but trust that voters will come to see the value of restoring a vital center in the US Congress.
The record of moderate collaborations in recent congresses is thin, but significant. GOP moderates joined Democrats in forcing reductions in proposed Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. They hope to rally support for more fiscal discipline in the 2006 appropriations cycle. They are also hopeful that a House vote on expanding federal funding for stem-cell research (expected Tuesday) and a parallel effort in the Senate will also be victories for a revived bipartisan center.
"Trust is what has not been happening around here," said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, who led efforts to rein in the Bush tax cuts. She says the many hours of working together on a deal on judges helped reinvigorate the quality of relationships needed to rebuild a working center in Congress.
"You don't often have a chance to sit down and talk to each other and to be focused. The media and those 30 second sound bite ads accentuate the divide. It gets people cemented in what divides them," she said in comments after the deal was announced Monday.
Signatories to the deal on judges included GOP Sens. McCain, Snowe, and Graham, as well as Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and John Warner of Virginia; and Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
In addition to those who formally signed on to the deal, centrists such as GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on leaders of both parties to release members from the straightjacket of party-line voting, saying this is the only way to defuse the crisis.
However, a challenge to this new alliance could come as early as this week. Although the pact promised up-or-down floor votes on three specific nominees that has long been blocked by the threat of a filibuster by Democrats, Senate majority leader Bill Frist could opt to force a vote on the two nominees not included in the pact: William Myers and Henry Saad.
"This is the paradox of the moment: A crisis has been averted, but the wrath of the right has been ignited to another level," says Mr. Wittmann.