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Senate Moderates Look for More Influence

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Tom Carper (right) speaks at a news conference Wednesday at a K-8 public school in Northwest Washington, D.C. Joining him to talk about

The group of moderate Democratic Senators that formed in the last Congress with mixed results has assembled new leadership and an agenda focused on cutting the deficit and overhauling education and energy policy.

Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) have joined Sen. Tom Carper (Del.) as co-chairmen of the moderate Democrats, taking the places of former Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.). Lincoln was defeated and Bayh retired last cycle.

Unlike the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs in the House, the Senate group doesn’t have a colorful name or a political action committee. But it has a broader policy focus and aims to play a key role in bringing the parties and the president together, the trio told Roll Call.

“The moderates can work together and focus on education, the debt and the deficit, and a clean energy standard,” Hagan said. “We’ve got to come together, bring Republicans and Democrats to the table and pass good, common-sense legislation.”

Carper has been pushing President Barack Obama to embrace President Bill Clinton’s strategy of “triangulation” after the 1994 Republican takeover and said the moderate group stands ready to back his efforts to move to the middle.

“Our role is to be a bridge between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, between the House and the Senate, and with the administration,” Carper said.

And despite the losses of several Members to retirement or defeat, the ranks of the group have actually risen modestly, with 17 Democrats — most of whom are in their first terms — as of Wednesday.

“You’ve got a new group of moderates who are just really excited and energized,” said Jim Kessler, vice president of policy for the moderate Democratic group Third Way. “Mark Udall is somebody who really wants to make a mark and so is Kay Hagan, and they’re not jaded by old battles.” 

All three co-chairmen of the group are honorary co-chairmen of Third Way, which has been pushing a more bipartisan approach.

Most of the moderate Senate group’s work has been behind the scenes, nudging top administration officials and Senate leadership to the center, reaching out to the GOP, and providing a sounding board and support group of sorts to fellow moderates.

Carper said the group doesn’t see itself as a counterweight to leadership, but as a sounding board for them and a group that can help avoid problems on the floor by giving early warnings about trouble points.

The group also is taking center stage on deficit reduction, where Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the moderate group, is leading the “Gang of Six” talks aimed at reaching a long-term budget deal slashing the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade.

“The glue that holds the moderates together is a desire to be fiscally responsible,” Udall said. “Most of us have been governors or businesspeople. We know what it takes to meet a payroll.”

He added: “We were really the reason why we had a deficit commission.”

Now they want to see much of that commission’s work translated into a bipartisan deficit deal.

And Udall said Democratic leadership appears to be responding to the need for cuts. “The leadership knows we’ve entered a new era. Deficits do matter, unlike what Dick Cheney said.”

That said, the Democratic moderates have been united against the $61 billion in cuts in the continuing resolution that passed the House as excessive and poorly targeted. They have urged a longer-term approach that would cut trillions of dollars from the deficit over the coming decade but delay most of the cuts until the unemployment rate drops.

“Their bill is a jobs killer,” Udall said, adding that the discussion has to shift from the domestic discretionary accounts to the much larger spending elsewhere.

“We can’t do things overnight to get us out of this fix,” Hagan said. “As a moderate, we need to speak, we need to speak loudly and clearly that we need to continue to invest in education, in infrastructure and research and development.”

The moderates want to see Obama take a leadership role on a long-term deficit-cutting package.

Udall said Obama should set a deadline and goal for reaching a long-term debt deal. “I’d like to see the president speak to the nation,” he said. “I think the country is ready for it.”

The group also is pushing hard for education reform, with Hagan and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), another member of the group, leading 11 moderate Democrats in signing on Wednesday to a statement of principles for overhauling the No Child Left Behind law.

Education reform appears ripe for a bipartisan deal but has been delayed for years by a host of ideological flash points that the moderates are hoping to bypass.

Carper said at an event announcing the new principles with Education Secretary Arne Duncan that Duncan’s message of reducing federal mandates while improving accountability has an appeal across party lines and that the issue doesn’t fit neatly into the liberal versus conservative divide.

“It can’t be a Democratic idea, it’s got to be a bipartisan movement, and I think we are hitting a crisis mode in this country,” Hagan said.

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