In Search of the Compromise Caucus

In Congress nowadays, it's lonely in the middle.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The need for compromise—for making government work for the American people—has been bandied about freely since Republicans won their resounding midterm victories. But it's not surprising, given the past six years, that the reality has been different. The operative game is that both parties express their desire to compromise, while attempting to maneuver the other party into a position where it looks obstructionist and ineffective. 

"Republicans have made detailed assertions that they want bring back the basic rudiments of the deliberative legislative process," said Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "I think they are sincere about that, but the question is: Do they have the infrastructure and the finesse to make it happen?"

The Republicans have a powerful incentive to make government work. The shutdown last year has been a drag on Congress's approval ratings, and they have to prove they can do better. While conservative-leaning states delivered the Senate to Republicans this year, the electoral math becomes more complicated in two years when seven of the party's incumbents in traditional battleground states will be up for re-election. And congressional Republicans considering presidential campaigns, including Kentucky's Rand Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio, have tried to reach beyond their party's base to address income inequality and revise the criminal justice system, an indication that the ability to cross the aisle will be an asset as the party tries to reverse a trend in which they've lost four of the past six races for the White House.

And few Americans are as frustrated by the inaction as the few remaining centrists who have been waiting for this moment. "We've got the next six to nine months to show that we will act responsibly and differently and change Washington for the better," said Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican with a reputation for deal-making. "Whether you’re on the more conservative end of the spectrum or in the middle the way I am, Republicans have a responsibility to show that we can govern."

Still, for all the trumpets blaring for bipartisanship, the divisions that have plagued Republicans are as strong as ever. Gallup polling released on Tuesday found that most people want the Republican-controlled Congress—and not President Barack Obama—to set the direction for the country in the coming year. It's a marked change from 2012, when a slim majority said they preferred for Obama to guide the agenda. But there's not much agreement within the Republican Party. A survey from Pew Research Center released on Wednesday showed that 57 percent of Americans said Republican leaders in Washington should try the best they can to work with the president, even it means disappointing the party's supporters. But by a nearly two-to-one ratio, Republican-leaning voters picked the other option: that lawmakers in their party should continue to stand up to the president.


The split is reflected in the early posturing from Republican leaders. Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the incoming Senate majority leader, says his party is "here to make the place function again." And while he takes shots at Obama in the next breath, he's also pledged to avoid a shutdown during the battle with Obama over immigration policy. House Speaker John Boehner refused to do the same. Asked Thursday whether he was willing to use a government funding measure to fight the president over immigration, he said "all options are on the table."

"Finding common ground is not gonna be easy," Boehner said.

It's easier to sketch out a moderate political middle in the Senate, but even there it's confusing. Consider two of the Senate Republicans most willing to cross the aisle have been Johnny Isakson and Lindsay Graham, who are from the deeply conservative states of Georgia and South Carolina, respectively. Meanwhile Iowa, a state that Obama won twice, is represented in the chamber by two of its most conservative members: six-term veteran Charles Grassley and incoming freshman Joni Ernst.

While Republicans will hold the majority for the first time in eight years, they'll be at least six seats short of the 60-vote threshold needed to pass most legislation. That means they'll need to find a handful of Democrats on a regular basis to move bills out of the chamber. The easiest targets may be the most conservative members remaining in the party's caucus. According to the National Journal's 2013 rankings, that includes Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Warner of Virginia and, if she survives her Dec. 6 re-election bid, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

Of those seven, all but Tester said they voted against re-installing Nevada's Harry Reid as their leader in their chamber. And several have openly feuded with Obama, showing that in some instances they may not think twice about bucking the president to vote for Republican legislation. Manchin, who supported delaying a key part of Obama's Affordable Care Act last year, questioned whether Reid's re-election was "the proper message to be sending." "The people in West Virginia I represent thought we should have change, thought the Democratic Party should have change," Manchin said after the vote on Thursday. "There's not too many Democrats left in West Virginia."

Even if Senate Democrats partner with Republicans instead of obstruct, the measure will have to pass an increasingly conservative House. "In many ways Speaker Boehner's challenge is more complex than Leader McConnell," Grumet said, adding that he thought the Ohio Republican was strengthened by his handling of the Tea Party caucus during the government shutdown last year.

Isakson, who served in the House for six years before winning election to the Senate in 2004, suggested that the two chambers will spend time volleying legislation back and forth in the Capitol. Conservative legislation in the House will be modified to collect Democratic support in the Senate, and then sent back for approval. "Boehner’s a good speaker and he’s a legislator first," Isakson said. "It’s entirely possible that this House will be cooperative with what we can pass."

"I sold houses for 33 years," Isakson said. "If you’re a salesman you’re a born optimist. And I start every year optimistic.”