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How dealmaking gets done on Capitol Hill

In the new politics of Congress, deals are no longer fashioned by moderates, who vanished long ago, but by a few lawmakers on the left and right who have the respect, clout, and just enough pragmatism to surmount the culture of division.

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Given the tough constraints, today's congressional dealmakers aren't coming from either party's moderate wing, as many of them have in the past. Those lawmakers have either been defeated or have left office on their own, out of frustration with the toxic atmosphere on the Hill or fear of a primary challenge. Instead, it's up to lawmakers respected on both the left and right, like Republicans Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, to get things done.

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"If you're waiting for the moderates to compromise," you're going to be waiting quite a while, says former Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind.) of Connecticut. "There are not enough left."

Getting those on either end of the spectrum to sit down together can be aided by what might be called political entrepreneurs, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, legislators willing to tackle sensitive issues such as immigration and Social Security before their parties are willing to do the same. But bringing disparate politicians together on new ideas is another matter. That is now often done through old-fashioned bargaining in the backroom, where lawmakers can make the kind of concessions key to compromise.

"Part of the value [of such groups] is they are working on the outlines of what a bargain on any issue would be before it hits the media," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. Bipartisan gangs "give some kind of signal to other party members that it's OK" to depart from orthodoxy.

The public's general disdain for gridlock and voters' outspokenness on individual issues are other factors that may force more compromise. "Sometimes dealmakers gain strength when there is some kind of social pressure to do something," says Mr. Zelizer.


Editor's note: This series on congressional dealmakers will continue through the remainder of the week.

Wednesday: Sen. Lindsey Graham

Thursday: Sen. Tom Coburn

Friday: Rep. Luis Gutierrez

Saturday: Rep. Paul Ryan and Rep. Chris Van Hollen

Sunday: Sen. Charles Schumer


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