Let us pause a moment to recall that Congress busies itself with matters other than Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. Some of them, in fact, affect quite a lot of people. One vote you might have missed last week said a lot about what the next couple of years will be like on Capitol Hill.
The vote involved the fundamental question of how Congress balances tax cuts against spending. During the Senate's annual budget debate, which sets guidelines for the year's spending bills, some senators pushed a measure to require that any new tax cuts be paid for with an equivalent, offsetting spending cut. Alternately, any spending hike would need to be balanced with a commensurate tax increase. This is known as "pay as you go" budgeting. Democrats love it because it puts the Republicans' cherished tax cuts directly in conflict with unpopular spending cuts.
But several Republicans were backing this measure, too. These Republicans believe that the GOP's obsession with tax-cutting in the face of huge deficits has perverted classic fiscal conservatism. To them, pay-as-you-go is a means of restoring sanity to the budget. They are the Senate's plucky band of Republican moderates: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and John McCain of Arizona.
In recent years these moderates have become heroes to Democrats—paragons of conscience and bravery—and pariahs to conservatives—heretic "Daschle Republicans." As the GOP has moved to the right, the moderates have struggled valiantly to stand firm in the center, voting repeatedly with Democrats on key issues. I've heard some Democrats fawningly dub them the Fantastic Four, after the team of comic-book superheroes who unwittingly acquired supernatural powers from the cosmic ray of a solar flare. OK, McCain may not be much like the Thing, Chafee isn't as hot as the Human Torch, and neither Collins nor Snowe would want to be dubbed the Invisible Woman (crafty as she was!). But by the standards of hyper-partisan Washington, there has been something almost supernatural about the way these senators defy their party's aggressive right wing on behalf of their principles. In the recent past, the Fantastic Four have been a useful check on congressional GOP excesses. Of late, however, their powers are waning.
Hopes were high for last week's pay-as-you-go vote, because the moderates succeeded in pushing through just such a measure a year ago. Rather than accede then to pay-as-you-go rules, furious GOP leaders opted for the spectacle of passing no budget resolution at all. It was a significant moral and public-relations victory for the mod squad. But this year things were different. When pay-as-you-go came to a Senate vote again last week, it failed to pass despite the intense efforts of the Fantastic Four. That's one of several defeats the moderates have suffered recently. Last week, when the Senate defeated an effort to block oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the moderates voted with the Democrats once again, and once again it didn't matter. Most tellingly, perhaps, it looks increasingly likely that the mods won't be able to stop the most radical move the Senate has seen in years: the Republican push to deploy the "nuclear option" that would rewrite Senate rules to end filibusters of judicial nominees.
How things have changed. It's hard to remember now, but back in the spring of 2001, the fate of the Bush administration seemed to hinge on the Senate's hearty moderate band. After Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords dashed across the political DMZ and declared himself an independent, evenly splitting the Senate between the parties, it seemed as if the threat of a Jeffords repeat—Chafee, for one, began making noises about defection—could stop the GOP's lurch to the right. Conservatives who had sneered at their party's moderates started sucking up to them. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott magnanimously gave Pennsylvania centrist Arlen Specter a special seat at his leadership meetings. Some moderates said alarmed conservatives went so far as to shower them with physical affection. "I've never had so many conservatives come up to me, put their arms around me and tell me how much they love me," one House moderate told the Washington Post.
In subsequent months, the moderates in the Senate flexed their newfound muscle. In the spring of 2003, for instance, the moderates pared down a proposed $726 billion tax cut to less than half that size, a figure Bush complained was "itty-bitty." In the next Congress, as the Republicans clung to a precarious 51-49 advantage, the moderates not only derailed the GOP budget but also pushed through the intelligence reforms recommended by the Sept. 11 commission over conservatives' objections.
But the 2004 elections were a tolling bell for the moderates. The Republicans now have a 55-45 Senate advantage, which means that on straight up-or-down votes requiring a simple majority, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist can afford to lose up to five members of his flock—all he needs is 50 votes to hand the ball off to tie-breaker Dick Cheney. Given that only the Fantastic Four are reliable dissidents, Frist is almost never under the 50-vote mark. Other GOP senators make occasional cameos as single-issue moderates: Ohio's George Voinovich on the deficit; Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter on abortion; Oregon's Gordon Smith on health care; Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and Indiana's Richard Lugar on foreign affairs. But it's rare for more than one of these senators to gang up with the Fantastic Four.
Now that the moderates can rarely help Democrats engineer a winning vote, their influence over Republican legislation is shrinking. Rather than chopping tax cuts in half, their latest protest led to a Senate budget featuring $70 billion in tax cuts, compared to Bush's $100 billion request. And when negotiations with the House are finished, Bush will likely get almost everything he wants. The moderates aren't getting as much love these days from the other side of the aisle, either. Here their problem is that the Republican majority isn't quite large enough to give them sway over the Senate filibuster. Harry Reid and the Democrats only need 41 votes to sustain a filibuster and stop Republicans from bringing a bill to a vote. That means Reid can survive the loss of four fellow Democrats before he needs to call in the mod squad.
But it's not just math that has defanged the moderates. Their decline also has to do with the escalating level of hostility between the parties. For much of Bush's first term, both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill talked the talk of compromise. Now that impulse is way out of style. Bush aggressively campaigned against several centrist Democrats, knocking them out of Congress and convincing others that working with Republicans wouldn't protect them. At the same time Congress' consummate dealmaker, Louisiana Democrat John Breaux, retired. As a result, Senate Democrats are as unified as they've been in years. Although they have splintered some on second-tier votes like class-action lawsuit and bankruptcy reform, their near-perfect cohesion on Social Security shows that they're hanging together when it counts. Olympia Snowe is chairing a Senate Centrist Coalition to hash out a compromise Social Security plan, but Democrats won't bite.
The ultimate defeat of the moderates, however, would be the successful activation of the nuclear option. Scuttling the filibuster for judicial nominees is an affront to everything the moderates have tried to promote: bipartisanship, compromise, and a check on the right wing's excesses. So far, the moderates' refusal to play along—along with the nervousness of traditionalists like Virginia's John Warner about the long-term effects on the Senate—have made it extremely difficult for Frist to corral the necessary votes. But the Republicans are close, and if Frist find a way to drop the Bomb, the moderates' lack of clout will be proved. And in the all-out partisan warfare that would be sure to follow—call it nuclear winter—they'd be stuck in a bleak no-man's land. If that happens, it'll be enough to make the Fantastic Four wish they really were in a comic book.