Rise of the free-agent lawmaker

With tight political margins, senators can play one party off the other, and forge ahead with their own agenda.

The Jeffords defection from the Republican Party is lifting the lid on one of Washington's best-kept secrets: It's not as dangerous to be off the party reservation as it used to be.

Breaking with the party leadership was once a formula for a short and nasty life on Capitol Hill. "To get along, you have to go along," said former longtime House Speaker Sam Rayburn. For most of the century, it was good advice.

But the narrower political margins of the past 30 years of divided government are changing that calculation. Now, political mavericks like Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and John Breaux (D) of Louisiana are finding they can challenge the party line and prosper. On Friday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who broke with the White House line on tax cuts, was invited into the GOP leadership.

"In a Senate this narrowly divided, where every vote counts, members of either party know they can take positions inconsistent with their caucus and face no retribution.

Because if retribution is too high, a senator can just walk," says Sen. Thomas Carper (D) of Delaware.

It's been a slow lesson for presidents and party leaders to learn. When then-Democratic Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama cast vote after vote against President Clinton's proposals, the White House tried to bludgeon him into line by moving a big space facility from Alabama to Texas. The embattled senator took his case to voters at home, and his popularity soared. After the GOP took the Senate in 1994, he bolted his party. Republicans let him keep seniority and even added on plum committee assignments.

Senator Jeffords walks into the same welcome in the Democratic Party. Early White House efforts to punish the Vermont maverick - ranging from social snubs to bypassing Jeffords on the committee he chairs - also backfired.

In part, what's sustaining these mavericks is a capacity to present their case directly to voters. Candidates are no longer dependent on the party to raise funds for campaigns or to define their political identity.

"Television makes it possible for a candidate to present himself or herself as an individual. The role of the party as a kind of intermediary presenting the candidate to the voters has really diminished," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "The parties are now fundraising organizations; they don't impose discipline on Congress."

Working both sides

Switching parties is hardly a new phenomenon. Since the 1960s, 14 Democrats have opted to exit their party, most from Southern states, while two Republicans, including Jeffords, have gone the other way.

But never before have senators had such an opportunity to play one party off against the other.

Negotiations with other potential free agents are continuing apace on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island has been at the top of the recruiting list for Democrats for some time. The maverick lawmaker has voted with Democrats on issues from tax cuts to the environment and comes from a strongly Democratic state.

Indeed, Democrats first approached Jeffords to get his advice on how to turn Senator Chafee, according to aides from both parties. When the GOP leadership let it be known that they would not appoint Chafee to a conference committee (to reconcile differences with the House) on environmental legislation he had sponsored, Democrats swiftly offered to appoint him under their label.

Since the Jeffords defection, however, Chafee's party has been treating him with greater care. His request for a face-to-face meeting with President Bush is reportedly making headway with White House schedulers.

Democrats have also been solicitous of their mavericks, especially Sen. Zell Miller (D) of Georgia. Appointed by a Democratic governor to replace Republican Paul Coverdell, Senator Miller made it clear from the start that he would "serve no single party, but rather 7.5 million Georgians." He was the lone Democratic sponsor of the Bush tax cut in the Senate, and has voted with Republicans on many issues.

Yet so far, he's faced no retaliation from Democrats.

"No one has pushed or pulled me. I've been completely left alone," Miller says.

Moderates hold the cards

Many moderates say the threat of future defections will only strengthen their position with the party leadership.

"The Jeffords move is a tremendous opportunity for the moderate Republicans," says Rep. Amo Houghton (R) of New York. "We've got to sit down and share our aspirations and our frustrations.... Otherwise, we'll be in bad shape."

Centrists like Miller or Senator McCain will undoubtedly have even greater leverage in the future, say experts.

"Zell Miller has the best of all worlds. He is now in the majority and can play footsie with the White House, hard to get with the Democratic leadership, and be courted by everyone," says Marshall Wittman, senior analyst with the Hudson Institute.

Already, McCain is forging ahead with his own agenda. He started with campaign-finance reform, and is now cosponsoring legislation for a prescription-drug benefit, a patients' bill of rights, and gun control. But GOP critics have been quieter since the Jeffords defection, and McCain's aides say that a long-delayed meeting with Mr. Bush is close to settled.

Still, some Republicans caution that giving too much leeway to party mavericks could backfire. "It's good to make sure the moderate middle is heard," says an aide close to the GOP Senate leadership. "But we also have a large conservative base we have to pay attention to."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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