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A Congress with no room for Olympia Snowe and other centrists?

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine is the latest centrist to depart Congress. For several years now, the partisans have been staying and the moderates have been either losing or leaving. 

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Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who led efforts in groups such as the Gang of Six to develop a bipartisan compromise over raising the national debt limit and cutting deficits.

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, whose outspoken support of President Bush’s policy in the Iraq War prompted a strong primary challenge in 2006 and his eventual party switch to run as an Independent. He also endorsed Sen. John McCain (R) in the 2008 presidential race.

Citing similar concerns about toxic partisanship in the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee stepped down in January as Republican Conference chairman, the No. 3 ranking leader. “Stepping down from leadership will liberate me to spend more time working for results on the issues I care most about,” he said in a letter to colleagues last September. “I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues.”

Elected first to the House of Representatives in 1978, Snowe joined a Republican caucus that had not been in the majority since the 1950s and, urged on by fellow freshman Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, was beginning to claw its way back.

At the same time, a culture of working across the aisle to get things done had a strong place in the Republican Party. Moderate caucuses such as the Tuesday Group or MainStreet Republicans gave centrists an identity apart from strict partisan lines and a base for proposing bipartisan solutions.

For a time, the closely divided Senate gave those remaining centrists an outsized role. But now, that prospect has faded. Snowe and Sens. Susan Collins (R) of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, then a Republican, were key brokers in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill. Their price: cutting $110 billion, reducing the final deal to $900 billion.

The outcome angered both Republicans, who opposed all stimulus spending, and Democrats, who feared that the cuts negotiated with GOP centrists made the final deal ineffectual. Mr. Obama has since backed off plans to negotiate with Republicans a “grand bargain” on debt- and deficit-reduction, opting instead to take disputed issues to the voters in November.

“The kind of elusive bipartisanship that President Obama wanted at the beginning of his term and that Senator Snowe thought was possible really isn’t,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. “You’re just not going to get very many bipartisan deals.

“Politicians aren’t in the business to lose. If they keep losing they step down,” he adds. “The partisans stay in there and win, and the centrists fade away. You will end up with a Senate after 2012 where partisanship will be that much stronger.”

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