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Senate Moderates Hope Seating Is Just the Start

Bill Clark/Roll Call

Sitting together is a start, but a depleted group of Senate moderates is looking for more concrete ways to rebuild relationships across the aisle — including more bipartisan lunches, a Camp David summit and maybe even getting rid of the aisle altogether.

Looking to advance the bipartisan seat-sharing for the State of the Union address further, Sen. Ben Nelson said Tuesday that he wants to do away with partisan seating permanently as part of an effort to renew cross-party coordination.

“I’m going to advocate ... if there is truly an interest in working together, that we eliminate the aisle on the floor of the Senate,” the Nebraska Democrat said. “Sit not by party but by state or by alphabet or in some other way. But it will only work if it’s more than just symbolism.”

And that gets to the hard part — while moderates should have more power in a closely divided Senate, their ranks were hit hard by retirements and defeats in 2010.

Last week’s retirement announcements from Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) are the latest blows to centrist ranks.

The remaining moderates have to wrestle the desire for bipartisan accomplishments with the cautionary tales of politicians such as Lieberman, who was defeated in the 2006 Democratic primary, or former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost a GOP state convention fight.

But that doesn’t seem to be stopping a flood of bipartisan proposals from emerging as the reality of a closely divided Senate sets in.

Bipartisan bills on new budget rules, various deficit reduction efforts and even under-the-radar issues such as patent reform are gaining steam.

Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander said there is a scramble under way in both parties to find bipartisan legislation.

“The recognition is that in an evenly divided Senate, which we’re likely to have for several years, nothing happens if you don’t work across party lines, and once that dawns on people, we are going to see a lot more consensus on major issues, and we can start with the debt,” the Tennessee lawmaker said.

But Alexander, who hosts bipartisan breakfasts with Lieberman and receptions with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), said more interaction between the parties has to be part of the solution.

“Senators spend almost all our spare time in team meetings during which we talk about what we’re going to do to each other,” he said. “We’d like to have some other occasions to get together where we can talk about what we might work on together. The bipartisan breakfasts are one; the receptions are another. There’s just too few of them.”

Sen. Mark Udall told reporters to “stay tuned” on future proposals aimed at fostering bipartisanship.

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