In Congress, critical moment for moderates

Highly partisan mood creates opportunity for centrists to take lead in Katrina oversight.

A catastrophic hurricane season is driving wedges deep into both parties on issues ranging from how to pay for the Gulf Coast cleanup to oversight hearings by a GOP-controlled Congress.

But it's also creating a historic opportunity for the vanishing breed of centrists on Capitol Hill, who find themselves in key positions to bridge such gaps between and within parties over what to do next.

In a highly polarized House and Senate, moderates with a record of cooperation with the other side of the aisle are leading probes into government's response to hurricane Katrina. Informally, they're also working to broker bipartisan solutions for how to pay cleanup costs expected to exceed $200 billion.

"My committee is going to ask the hard questions of government at all levels. Our purpose is not to fix blame, but to fix problems," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which began its inquiry into the "long predicted" natural disaster Sept. 14.

Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, another moderate Republican with a record of working with Democrats, is chairing a similar committee in the House. His panel expects to finish by mid-February.

Formally, these are separate investigations. Party leaders in the House and Senate couldn't agree on terms for a bipartisan, bicameral panel, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California called on her caucus to boycott the House panel.

But below the radar, moderate Sens. Collins and Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel, are working with Davis to develop witness lists and lines of questioning. "We have a great relationship with him and are going to coordinate efforts," Collins said at a Monitor breakfast this week.

At the same time, moderates are cashing in on their credibility as centrists to reach out to House Democrats. After Rep. Pelosi declined to appoint members to fill the nine Democratic seats on the 20-seat panel, charging that the investigation was a "sham," chairman Davis invited three Democrats from the Gulf region to participate on their own. In a gesture of good will, Davis asked Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi, who lost his home in hurricane Katrina, to open questioning in the panel's first oversight hearing on Sept. 22.

"We want both Republicans and Democrats at the table to do this job right," said Davis. "The more voices asking tough questions the better." Democratic Reps. Charlie Melancon and William Jefferson of Louisiana also broke a party boycott to participate on the new panel.

In a sharp contrast to the bipartisan response after the 9/11 attacks, lawmakers largely fell back into partisan positions after hurricane Katrina. With little consultation with Democrats, Republican leaders proposed a bipartisan probe composed of senators and House members. Democrats turned them down, calling instead for an independent investigation along the lines of the 9/11 commission.

After the 9/11 attacks, Democratic leader Pelosi had been the first to propose an independent investigation, but the idea didn't take hold until proposed a year later by then-Rep. Tim Roemer (D) of Indiana, a moderate who became a 9/11 commissioner.

While the moderate ranks in both parties have thinned in recent election cycles, the ones remaining are playing a higher-profile role as dealmakers or dealbreakers in the Bush years.

With Katrina, that role is surfacing again. "The moderate instinct is that the country is in crisis, and we have to find some degree of reconciliation and unity in the interests of the nation," says Marshall Wittman, a former conservative activist, now with the Democratic Leadership Council.

"Because of the relatively narrow margins that divide the parties, moderates can still broker deals that have a great moderating influence on issues from tax cuts to judicial fights," he adds.

In May, Senate moderates negotiated a deal across party lines to block a showdown over the filibuster of judicial nominations. On the eve of a vote dubbed the "nuclear option," seven Democrats and seven Republican senators, including Collins and Lieberman, announced that they would oppose either a filibuster of a judicial nominee or a rule change to outlaw such filibusters unless in "extraordinary circumstances." That deal by the so-called Gang of 14 put the confirmation process back on track.

Not quite a shadow Judiciary Committee, the 14 were a point of reference throughout the confirmation hearings of John Roberts to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. As long as their agreement held, there could be no filibuster of his nomination, expected to be confirmed by a floor vote in the Senate Thursday.

With Katrina cleanup costs expected to spike federal budget deficits, moderates are also gearing up for a role in the coming budget debates. Early in the Bush administration, moderates made a mark by calling for limits to Bush's tax cuts.

In response, conservative antitax activist Grover Norquist dubbed the moderates Republicans in Name Only: RINOS. The label stuck, and conservative commentators often denounce these moderates for disloyalty.

In recent days, moderates are challenging the Bush White House and GOP leaders to find offsets for relief spending and to build in better safeguards against fraud and abuse.

While the fiscal year ends Friday, most of the big spending and tax decisions are still pending. After a scuffle with House Republican leaders last week over the need to find offsets for Katrina spending, House conservatives backed off what appeared to be a break with their own leadership.

"As they say in NASCAR, 'Rubbin' is racin'.' You can still get around the race- track even if you bang fenders with your teammates," says Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, the head of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus. But the rift leaves room for moderates to broker a deal in the interest of fiscal restraint - the theme of this week's meeting of the bipartisan Centrist Coalition in the Senate.

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