Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana, departing Republican senators with a history of compromise, will be prime targets for Democrats seeking votes to avoid tax increases and spending cuts at the start of 2013.
Senate Republican leaders are anticipating that because of their lame-duck status and moderate voting records, the three lawmakers will receive overtures from President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Brown, Snowe and Lugar each said in interviews that their impending departures from Congress won’t alter the way they evaluate a possible deal to avert more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending reductions set to begin in January unless Congress acts -- the so-called fiscal cliff. Still, they’ve indicated a willingness to back a deal with broad support.
“Probably the administration’s strategy is going to be divide and conquer: They’re going to try to pick off a handful of Republicans to give bipartisan cover to whatever they try and do over here,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Senate Republican, said in an interview.
More than 80 lawmakers in the Senate and House, some defeated in re-election bids and others retiring, will vote this month before leaving Congress. Some are considered possible swing votes on a budget deal because like Brown, they may have future political aspirations, or like Lugar and Snowe, they may want to secure a political legacy.
Support from Brown, Snowe and Lugar alone wouldn’t be enough to get a budget deal through the Senate, which Democrats control 53-47. If Democrats can hold all their own votes, a gain of three Republicans would still leave them four short of the 60 needed to advance major legislation in the chamber.
The Congressional Budget Office has warned that failing to avert the spending cuts and tax increases would pitch the U.S. economy into a recession.
“I’m going to vote the same way I’ve always voted,” said Brown, who has hinted since losing to Democrat Elizabeth Warren on Nov. 6 that he plans to run again for public office. ‘I’m going to finish like I started, which is I’m going to read the bills and see how they affect our state, our country, our debt and our deficit and vote.”
Lugar, a six-term incumbent, lost in a May primary to Tea Party backed challenger Richard Mourdock, who was defeated in the general election by Democrat Joe Donnelly. Snowe announced her decision to retire in February, citing frustration with growing partisanship in the Senate.
Meanwhile, to stave off a primary challenge in 2014, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky may have incentive to oppose any tax-and-spending deal reached by Obama and House Speaker John Boehner -- particularly one that includes an increase in taxes for top earners. Opposition from McConnell would make more important the votes of rank-and-file Republican moderates like Brown, Snowe and Lugar.
Brown, who won his seat in a 2010 special election to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy, said Democrats haven’t approached him seeking support for a budget agreement that the president is trying to negotiate with Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
“Right now it’s really at the leadership level, they’re doing their thing,” Brown said.
Pressed as to whether he might be persuaded to back a deal that includes a tax increase for high earners, Brown said, “We’ll see. Nothing’s been proposed yet.”
In Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, Brown has touted his efforts to work with the president, including sponsoring Obama-backed legislation to ban insider trading by members of Congress.
Lugar said he is “open to all suggestions” on how to avoid the fiscal cliff, adding that his Senate departure “would not change” his point of view.
“I’m in favor of trying to work out an agreement and will be as active as I can in trying to do that,” he said.
Ahead of the May 8 primary, Lugar was attacked by Mourdock, the state treasurer, for not actively backing the Tea Party’s push to limit government and for being too willing to compromise with Obama. On the night of his primary loss, Lugar said Mourdock’s “embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset” was “irreconcilable” with Lugar’s philosophy of governance.
Snowe, one of three Senate Republicans who backed Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus measure, resisted Democratic attempts to enlist her support for the 2010 health-care law, which eventually passed Congress without a single Republican vote.
Snowe said she “certainly” would be willing to work with Democrats on a tax-and-spending deal because it is “an issue of such consequence for the nation.” She added that as of now, the pertinent negotiations are between Obama and his aides and House Republican leaders.
“At some point, they’re going to have to decide how best they can get that broader support, depending on what agreement they reach,” she said. “If it’s something that I could support, I would support it, quite frankly, because it’s so compelling for the country.”
Senate leaders will want to court the departing senators because they “can’t get to 60 without Republicans like Brown, Lugar and Snowe,” said John Pitney, a political scientist and professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “If they can’t get these folks, then they have no chance of getting to 60.”
In the House, departing Republicans probably will provide some of the votes that Boehner would need to advance any deal he reaches with Obama.
Moderates including Judy Biggert and Bob Dold of Illinois and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, all of whom lost on Nov. 6, and Steve LaTourette of Ohio, who decided to retire, could be swayed. Republican freshman elected with the Tea Party support in 2010 including Joe Walsh of Illinois, Nan Hayworth of New York and Allen West of Florida are expected to oppose any deal that includes the revenue Obama is demanding.
Walsh, Hayworth and West lost their re-election bids.
When the Senate in July passed legislation extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts only for individual income up to $200,000 a year and married couples’ income up to $250,000. Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Virginia Democrat Jim Webb joined Republicans in opposing that measure. Neither sought re-election this year.
Lierbman said in an interview that he now would be prepared to support increased rates on top earners as part of a broader deficit deal before year’s end.
“At this point, I think the position the president has laid out makes sense to me as a next step, and it’s one that he’s earned the right to make by virtue of being re-elected, which is that there ought to be an increase in taxes on higher income,” he said.
Another retiring Democrat, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, said he would scrutinize any budget deal reached during his final weeks in office. Nelson was the final Democratic holdout in the Senate on the 2010 health-care law.
“My approach is not changing because I made the decision to retire at the end of the year,” said Nelson. “My approach will be what it’s always been: Try to determine what’s best for the country, for the state of Nebraska, and what’s really going to move us forward rather than keep us stuck in reverse gear.”