The Senate had barely been back in business for the first time since the midterm elections when moderate Democrats took to the Senate floor to publicly flex their political muscle and make a statement – both literally and figuratively.
They were there to back a call by fellow moderate, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, for a vote on the approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. While Landrieu’s demand was political at its root – she hopes it will help her win her December 6th runoff in the oil rich state – the symbolism of taking a stand on Keystone may have a lasting impact on the business of Washington over the next two years.
Any effort to rally moderates’ influence in the Senate could be pivotal in an institution historically renowned for compromise, but only if the Senate is functioning and not stuck in partisan theatrics.
Less than one week after Democrats lost at least eight seats in the midterms and control of the Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and a small group of centrists are using the Keystone issue as a vehicle to demand an end to the era of the do-nothing Senate where legislating rarely appears on the Senate’s agenda.
“If you heard nothing more than that roar of Americans,” Manchin said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “They basically told us to do something.”
It is only fitting that the moderates take a stand on the pipeline, which has become a symbol of partisanship and brinkmanship. It has been controversial since it was first proposed. Most liberals oppose it for environmental reasons and conservatives have long pushed it to bolster the flow of oil into the American economy. President Barack Obama postponed a decision on its construction. Democrats in the Senate also resisted a vote on it as it was thought to jeopardize their reelection prospects this year.
Manchin was joined on the floor by fellow Democrats, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, all of whom have moderate voting records, according National Journal’s ideological ranking. They newly emboldened show of force is to send a message that they are prepared to take an outsized role to ensure the Senate operates differently moving forward.
Heitkamp pointed to the electoral results that booted her party from power as proof.
“The clearest message that we received is to stop fighting and get your work done,” said North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
Exit polls from the elections show that voters are not happy with Washington. Only 43 percent of more than 19,000 voters surveyed have a favorable view of the Democratic Party while 42 percent have a favorable view of Republicans. What’s worse, only 20 percent approve of the way Congress is going its job.
These moderates aren’t just blowing smoke, they are inserting their demands early to ensure their clout grows in a new Senate come January, reversing course of a pattern where moderates have seen their power sidelined in recent years as political firebrands who promoted a my-way-or-the-highway approach won races, the threat of a primary challenge moved lawmakers further to the extreme end of the political spectrum, and leaders wanted to protect their members from taking politically difficult votes.
Former Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a moderate who left the Senate in 2013 and was known to upset some of the most liberal members in his party because of his voting positions, especially against the public option in the health care bill, believes hyper-partisanship is more damaging in the long-run.
“Maybe it helps people get reelected, but there’s more to serving in the Senate than continuing to assure your reelection,” he said.
The environment for moderates in the Senate got so bad that it pushed former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican who sometimes voted across party lines, out. She, just like Nelson, left the Senate in 2013 after 18 years because of the increased polarization of the Upper Chamber. In a recent interview, she had a reason for the toxic dynamic.
“There’s a vested interest in not solving problems because then (members and interest groups) don’t have an issue to raise funds or appeal to their political bases,” Snowe said.
These moderate Democrats’ objective is not solely altruistic, however, but is also sprinkled with politics. They see the political benefits of partisanship declining. Manchin, Tester and Heitkamp, all Democrats from conservative states, watched some in their ranks lose their seats on November 4. Red state moderate Democratic Sen. Mark Begich lost in Alaska as well as Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas. And North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, who is the most moderate senator, according to National Journal, lost in the purple state of North Carolina.
They say they have received the message loud and clear.
“Enough political games,” Tester said on the floor of the Senate. The American people “told us they want us to compromise.”
Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats but sometimes votes with Republicans, said he senses a shift since the elections. He said there are “a lot of conversations” among some members about how to be productive legislators.
He points to his own efforts to pass bipartisan legislation. He said he is talking with Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri about a regulatory reform bill and with North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr about a student loan bill.
In theory, with Republicans taking the majority, they will need the support of some Democrats to reach the necessary 60-vote threshold to pass controversial legislation, naturally giving Democratic centrists more influence.
King warned, however, that moderates willing to compromise can only have a role if the newly minted Republican leadership is willing to move legislation.
“If they are in a kind of we don’t want to do anything mode, nothing much is going to happen,” King said.
In reality, if moderates are going to have any ability to formulate and pass legislation, beyond the role of stacking votes, the coalition would be more effective with members of both parties.
Republican moderates might have some incentive. Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, who has focused his post-Senate work on working with Democrats to push budget reform, said that after big wins, the Republican Party is going to have to show they are more than “the party of no.”
“These people are there to make something work. If it doesn’t work Republicans will have a real struggle,” Simpson said.
Personal electoral incentive could exit, too. Nearly half of the Republican caucus – 24 senators - is up for re-election and eight are running in states that President Barack Obama won at least once.
They include Burr, who is sponsoring legislation with King. Others include Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Republicans might worry that if the public thinks that they are leading the stalemate, then they could have the same electoral results that Democrats had in 2014 – a not very good one.