- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

In a normal year, the handful of mavericks, eccentrics and label-defying swing voters in the U.S. Senate would be a mere curiosity, good for the occasional wry news article or sardonic joke.
But with the chamber split evenly between the political parties for the first time in its history, each member of this swing caucus is suddenly a very hot property in Washington.
"Neither side has the majority, so it has sort of a freeing quality to it," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and one of the likely swing votes. "Of course there will be times when people say, 'Let's just hold the line,' but I think it sort of frees us up to exercise our own judgment as senators in a way that is unusual."
Mr. Feingold is often a solidly liberal voice in the Senate, but he has been known to break ranks dramatically to vote with conservatives on fiscal and budget-cutting issues. He was also one of only a handful of Democrats to publicly waver on the Clinton impeachment trial, although he ultimately voted in the president's favor.
In recent years, more Republicans than Democrats have routinely broken ranks. It's too early to tell whether that trend will continue. The 2000 election dramatically changed the makeup of the Senate, with 10 new faces in the chamber eight Democrats and two Republicans. One other Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, took office just months before the election after being appointed to replace Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, who died last year.
"On our side there's always been five to seven [regular crossover voters]," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "I think that's probably still the same" in the wake of the 2000 election, when Republicans lost four seats.
"On the other side, I am less clear," he said. "They've had a pretty high level of unity, frequently haven't split off at all, so it will be interesting to see."
Realizing their potential power, centrists of both parties have tried to establish a stable caucus. By meeting regularly and trying to set some common goals, organizers hope to exert some coherent influence in the Senate and prevent the process from breaking down into a bidding war for a handful of key votes.
"We're trying to avoid a situation where we have just one or two people from each side to become swing voters," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, Maine Republican and a member of the Republican Mainstreet Partnership, a centrist club. "That doesn't provide a solid foundation for the legislation."
Mrs. Snowe co-chairs the centrist group with Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat. Their first meeting, last month, drew 26 senators from both parties. Mrs. Snowe said she hopes to have as many as 40 members attend the weekly meetings of the coalition.
Realistically, members say, neither side is going to have an easy time building stable bipartisan coalitions. The issues before Congress are too diverse and the hard feelings between the parties, particularly over impeachment and the presidential elections, are too deeply rooted.
President-elect George W. Bush is already trying to figure out how to push his agenda through the closely divided Congress Republicans hold only a narrow lead in the House as well and is planning for an almost member-by-member campaign on each issue.
Mr. Bush "is not going to have anything like President Reagan's 'boll weevil' group where the president got up every morning and knew how many Democrats he was going to have with him," said Rep. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican and one of Mr. Bush's key Hill advisers. He was referring to a small coalition of conservative Democrats who regularly cooperated with the Republican president in the 1980s.
"But there's going to be a bigger universe of Democrats to work with," he said. "Some Democrats will be with you on one issue and another group is going to be with you on another issue."
Republicans managed to fracture Democratic Party unity several times in recent years. They convinced nine Democrats to back repeal of the estate tax despite President Clinton's veto threat, for example, and rounded up 14 Democratic votes to ban partial-birth abortion, despite the vehement opposition of the president, party leaders and key party interest groups.
Of the 100 members of the chamber, there is a standard cast of about 20 senators who can be counted upon to cross party lines at least occasionally. The most frequent swing voters are Republicans, largely liberals and centrists from the Northeast who have little taste for the more confrontational style of conservatives from the South and West.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are traditionally better at maintaining party discipline and have fewer regular swing voters. Democrats managed to maintain absolute unanimity through the impeachment trial of Mr. Clinton, for example, despite the clear dislike many lawmakers had for the president and the dismay many felt over his behavior.
There are, however, a few Democrats who will cross party lines, particularly those from conservative-leaning states in the South. Most prominent is Mr. Breaux, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, who has championed ideas popular among Republicans, such as revisions of the Medicare system.
Mr. Breaux was widely rumored to be in the running for a Cabinet position in the Bush administration, and he met privately with Mr. Bush in Texas last month.
In the end, Mr. Breaux said he would prefer to remain in the Senate, saying he could be "more useful" to Mr. Bush in that position. It's not clear whether Mr. Bush ever formally asked him about a Cabinet position.
For the most part, however, Democrats remain an unknown quantity in this session of Congress. Two of the best-known Senate mavericks Sen. Robert Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York retired this year.
Their replacements, and the new Democratic senators who picked up formerly Republican seats, may not be so willing to cooperate. A few are unabashed liberals who seem unlikely to cross party lines except perhaps on very narrow issues Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, and Mark Dayton of Minnesota.
Some others might be more willing to cooperate with Republicans. Sens. Bill Nelson of Nebraska and Tom Carper of Delaware, as well as Mr. Miller, all served as governors, a position that often produces legislators more willing to compromise or take independent stands.
On the Republican side, former Virginia Gov. George F. Allen has also joined the Senate. Although he is quite conservative, he has said he expects to make common cause with Democrats, particularly his fellow former governors. He also has considerable experience in dealing with a closely divided legislature, since the General Assembly was nearly tied throughout his governorship.
Then there's Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, who has made a career of staking out conservative positions on social issues that are closer to Republican themes than Democratic ones. He is a harsh critic of violence in the media and has advocated school choice programs and privatization of Social Security.
But Mr. Lieberman had to back off those positions this fall as his party's vice-presidential nominee. It's too early to tell whether he will resume his positions now that he is no longer under the shadow of unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, who strongly disagreed with those views.


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