Centrists Bearish on Deals

Posted February 27, 2004 at 5:24pm

Senate Democratic centrists are not holding their breath for bipartisan compromises this year, charging that the White House holds too much sway with Republican moderates to get much done in this session.

While GOP moderates insisted otherwise, Democrats indicated that the bipartisan Senate Centrist Coalition may have a difficult time influencing the outcome of upcoming debates on spending priorities.

“During the presidential election, all bets are off on cooperation,” said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who chairs the centrist group. Moderates “are being affected by the reality of the situation. … On high-profile issues, it makes it more difficult to compromise.”

The reason, according to several Democrats: The White House cannot be trusted to play fairly with either their own moderates or Democrats of any stripe.

“The White House will have, undoubtedly, a lot of concerns about a lot of Republicans going along with them,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb).

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) acknowledged that the Democrats’ primary complaint — that the Bush administration held too much sway over their Republican counterparts — was not off the mark.

“In the past, the White House has always been able to pull the votes, and the only defectors really were me and Senator [John] McCain [R-Ariz.],” Chafee said.

Still, Chafee said he had high hopes for centrists being able to come together to fight Bush’s proposed spending cuts in education and other social programs.

Democratic moderates were less gloomy on Feb. 5 when they emerged from the first Senate Centrist Coalition meeting of the year.

At the time, Breaux said, “Centrists have the potential to make a big impact” this year.

Breaux also predicted there would be many more meetings of the group in advance of the budget resolution debate, which is set to begin in earnest next week.

But Breaux said last week that centrists have not met again, and no meetings are scheduled.

“We haven’t had a lot of expression of interest so far,” he said.

Breaux said he had not completely given up on bipartisanship, but he predicted compromises on side issues would come more easily.

“You’ll have some examples of bipartisanship on some things, but it’s not going to happen on big things,” he said, noting that passing a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, as Congress did last year, would be impossible under the current political atmosphere.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) was a bit more optimistic.

“I don’t think it’s impossible at all” to reach an accord with Republican centrists, she said.

“It’ll be hard to argue that people can get things done without centrists, but it is a huge challenge, because the problem on both sides is that everybody is looking for a win,” she continued.

While many Republican moderates acknowledged the heightened tensions, they expressed a less negative view of the situation.

“I think it’s too early to tell,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) of whether centrists had been tainted by the partisan bug.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) agreed. “I always try to figure out how people can work together,” he said.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who co-chairs the Centrist Coalition with Breaux, has repeatedly said she wants to bring moderates together to hold the line against further deficit spending, whether through blocking new tax cuts or identifying unnecessary spending.

She’s even hinted that she would like a repeat of last year’s tax-cut debate, in which she and Voinovich, along with a handful of Democratic moderates, succeeded in forcing the president to accept a scaled-back $350 billion tax cut rather than his $726 billion proposal.

But Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said Republicans would be just as skeptical of Democrats this year.

“I think it goes both ways. Republicans will be less likely to work with Democrats as well,” he said.

Nelson explained that it was not that he didn’t trust Senate GOP moderates. He just does not believe they will be able to resist White House pressure tactics, which last year included sending pro-tax-cut Cabinet members to the home states of wavering Republicans.

“I’m not going to suggest for one minute that some Republicans won’t try to go their own way,” said Nelson. “It’s the extent to which people are able to move away from the administration that matters.”

Indeed, a deep distrust of the Bush administration appears to be the heart of Democrats’ complaints.

“Sometimes they go over the top,” said Breaux, who has criticized the Bush administration for what he sees as malicious campaigning in 2002 against moderate Democratic Sens. Max Cleland (Ga.), Jean Carnahan (Mo.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) — after all three voted for Bush’s controversial $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001.

Cleland and Carnahan lost their re-election bids, while Landrieu eked out a win in a runoff.

“You can’t get people to ignore what happened in 2002,” said Nelson.

Indeed, Landrieu said she had low expectations for any bipartisan moderate agreements, and she struck a surprisingly partisan tone in laying out why Democrats should simply pursue their own alternatives to Bush’s budget proposals.

“Democrats have a much better opportunity … to show themselves to be the party of fiscal discipline, since we demonstrated that for eight years and this president has demonstrated the opposite,” said Landrieu, referring to largely balanced budgets under Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“A group of us from both the House and Senate are just trying to find a way to point out the weaknesses in the way this president has managed the budget situation. … Republicans have set their sails to convince the American people that the answer to every problem is a tax cut. I think that’s snake oil.”