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Senate Moderates Speak Softly and Carry a Small Stick

Senate moderates, goes an old Washington saying, temper the ideological excesses of whichever party is in power. And since the Republican sweep in November, that saw has been bandied about town more than ever. There's only one problem: This "truism" isn't true.

Certainly, a bipartisan group of about 10 lawmakers has the potential to be influential. If moderate Democrats such as John B. Breaux of Louisiana and E. Benjamin Nelson of Nebraska teamed up with a half-dozen similarly inclined Republicans, they could block any legislation they found too extreme. But the moderates have shown neither the temperament nor the cohesiveness to obstruct the conservative agenda. As a result, President Bush's wish list--from tax cuts to right-leaning judges--is likely to zip through Congress largely intact. "The idea that they can tie up the Senate and force change is dubious," says James A. Thurber, professor of government at American University. "They're not in the Republican leadership, they don't control many of the committee chairs, and that's where the agenda is shaped."

The moderates' reluctance to confront their conservative colleagues will be felt most acutely on taxes. Despite concerns about the growing budget deficit, the centrists are unlikely to slow White House attempts to make the 2001 tax cuts permanent and accelerate some rate reductions. "They voted for the tax package once, and they'll do it again," says conservative activist Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

The centrist GOP senators--including Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins of Maine, Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, and Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois--insist they're not doormats. They're hoping to safeguard education and health programs from deep budget cuts. And they will try to ensure that less-well-off Americans share in any tax-cut bonanza, in particular by making the child tax credit permanent.

While the centrists will be satisfied with small fiscal victories, they are talking big on the environment. They are promising to go to the mat to make sure that new energy legislation does not include drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "I'd like to see the party follow the tradition...[of] Theodore Roosevelt," says Fitzgerald. "He was our first environmentalist President, and he was a Republican."

Nice thought, but some colleagues are convinced the centrists don't have the gumption to fight. "They take a three-step approach: ineffective protest, abject surrender, and then denial," fumes liberal Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

There's a reason Frank and others are so steamed. It took only 15 days after the election for the centrists to provide the pivotal votes to pass homeland security legislation, despite concerns about provisions tucked in by the House GOP. One effectively limits the liability of drug companies whose vaccines are alleged to cause autism in children. Another allows companies to bid on homeland security contracts even if they have moved offshore to dodge taxes.

Instead of insisting that the House strip out the provisions, the moderates allowed them to become law after private assurances from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that the offending items would be excised next year. However, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) says he's under no such obligation. The centrists now find their credibility on the line. "I have a call in to Trent about this," says Collins. "I got what I thought was an ironclad promise."

That kind of lament is not what moderates had in mind when they boasted of forging a "third way." Instead of curbing ideological excesses in the new Congress, they are in danger of looking like little more than patsies for the Right. President Bush's midterm triumph--combined with brother Jeb's landslide reelection in Florida--has some Republicans dreaming of extending the family dynasty. But before George W. thinks too seriously about handing the White House keys to Jeb, he should ask his party's rank and file. According to a Nov. 19-20 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, just 20% of Republicans want the Florida governor to seek the top job in 2008. Only 9% of Independents say yes to Jeb for Prez. He may look warm and cuddly, but House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is tightening his control over committee chairs. New GOP caucus rules will prevent panel bosses from filing bills without approval from a 17-member steering committee dominated by social conservatives and budget hawks. Chairs who push bills without permission risk losing their plum posts. "It's a shot across the bow" of the 13 powerful "cardinals" who head spending subcommittees, says a top GOP aide. Another sign of Republican dominance in Washington: Come January, there will be more businesspeople than lawyers in Congress. That's a huge shift in the past three decades. Between 1970 and 2002, the number of attorneys elected to the House has slipped from 242 to 160, according to Congressional Quarterly. Meanwhile, the number of executives, bankers, and entrepreneurs has grown to 162, a 24% increase since the 1994 Republican takeover.

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