July 28, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

The Center Can’t Hold if There Isn’t One Left

File Photo
Sen. Kent Conrad (right) has been a key figure in the “gang of six” deficit negotiations. But both he and Sen. Joe Lieberman are retiring next year, which will further deplete the ranks of centrists and dealmakers in the chamber.

It wasn’t that long ago that any talks leading to a possible major bipartisan deal would include names like former Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), former Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and, yes, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

But Breaux, a three-term Senator, retired in 2004, and Bayh, who served two terms as Indiana’s governor and 12 years in the Senate, are now making money, not laws.

In the Senate, Kent Conrad (N.D.), one of the few Democratic Senators truly concerned for years about the deficit, is still around. He is a key figure in the “gang of six,” a mishmash of liberals, conservatives and moderates who are hoping to end the current debt ceiling crisis. But he won’t be around for much longer, as he has chosen not to seek re-election.

Lugar and Snowe are still in the Senate, so they could theoretically play the role of dealmakers. But this year, they are simply out of the mix.

Both are seeking re-election in 2012, with Snowe hoping to avoid a stiff challenge from her political right and Lugar already facing a difficult primary against state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who has support from the state’s tea party crowd as well as from some local GOP leaders.

On the House side, there are few Democrats still around who have a history of building bridges with the GOP or have built reputations on fiscal responsibility to give them credentials to negotiate with Republicans.

Spratt, who chaired the House Budget Committee for years, was defeated in 2010, and a long list of pragmatic Democrats, from Reps. Walt Minnick (Idaho) and Gene Taylor (Miss.) to Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.) either went down to defeat in 2010 or saw the writing on the wall and left of their own volition.

Boehner, of course, is not merely “still around.” He’s the GOP’s leader as Speaker, which theoretically puts him in the position to negotiate a deal.

But, as odd as it may sound, as his party’s leader, Boehner isn’t nearly as free to help broker a compromise as he would be if he were simply an influential senior Member of the party. He’s the leader of an army that is skeptical of its officers, if not downright mutinous. He certainly understands that, and it limits what he can achieve.

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