- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

More than a dozen centrist Democratic senators are forming a coalition that will meet every two weeks to focus on upcoming legislative battles, such as President Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget proposal.

With 15 members, the Moderate Dems Working Group wields considerable clout in the chamber, where passage of legislation hinges on all 58 Democratic votes, in addition to those of at least two Republican centrists. The group met for the second time Tuesday to discuss negotiations over Mr. Obama’s budget, which has attracted skepticism from fiscal conservatives for its tax and spending increases.

Members of the new group say the initiative is aimed at avoiding partisan gridlock.

“The middle is usually where you find the way forward; it’s that simple,” said member Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.

Centrist Democrats have not been afraid to throw their weight around in order to put their marks on Obama initiatives. For example, objections by Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, also a member, to the economic-stimulus bill’s hefty price tag led to cuts of more than $100 billion. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana was a leading critic of the earmark-laden omnibus spending bill signed by the president this month. With the looming budget fight, moderates are expected to be key players in the debate over tax increases and ambitious agenda items, such as cap-and-trade energy programs and the health care overhaul.

But the group - led by Mr. Bayh, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas - is being viewed as a slap in the face by the party’s far-left wing, which is accusing the moderates of conspiring to stall Mr. Obama’s agenda.

“Republicans, of course, have decided to be the party of ‘no,’ staking their future on President Obama’s failure, but that isn’t a surprise,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “More treacherous opposition comes from within the Democratic Party itself … SenatorBayh’s group wants to be called ‘moderate,’ but their complaints about President Obama’s policies are conservative complaints. The timing of this announcement makes it obvious that the group’s first priority seems to be to join with conservatives to weaken President Obama’s reforms.”

Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, said the opposite is the case.

“This is the group that will be instrumental in passing the Obama agenda. The road to transformational change is going through the moderates,” said Mr. Kessler, whose group is focused on bridging the liberal-conservative divide.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada welcomes the coalition, said spokesman Jim Manley. Asked if the group could prove to be a thorn in the side of Senate leadership, Mr. Manley said: “Not at all.”

Rounding out the group are Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia.

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