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The Mods' Squad

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Everyone is predicting partisan bickering, but the moderates from both parties have a different plan

In his second year at wizard school, Harry Potter is warned away from a dangerous book. Whoever opens it will be doomed to read the words over and over, forever. Last week's headlines from Capitol Hill seemed bewitched by the same spell: again and again they promised gridlock and malevolence, possibly forever. But behind the scenes, a group of lawmakers from both parties began conjuring a different endgame. In phone calls, over sandwiches, during chance hallway encounters, moderates from both parties talked about how they might join forces as never before. Improbable as it sounds, the 107th Congress could actually pass some important laws.

To be sure, a few fiery members returned from hometown re-election revels and quickly unpacked bitterness. In the House, Republicans Tom DeLay and John Shadegg circulated memos saying Congress has the authority to block Al Gore from taking office even if Florida certifies a vote showing him ahead. DeLay and Shadegg say members of Congress can reject a state's electoral votes if they believe they are invalid. (Shadegg's packet was subtly titled, "Don't Let Gore Steal the Election Through the Courts.") An aide to the Democratic leadership sniped that Republicans "don't have much idea how to lead, but they sure know how to divide this place." Senate leaders, meanwhile, couldn't even discuss a controversial Democratic proposal to share power equally, because the Washington State race still wasn't decided last week. The outcome will determine whether that chamber is split 50-50, if Democrat Maria Cantwell wins; or 51-49, if Republican incumbent Slade Gorton holds on to his seat.

But because voters almost surgically bisected Congress, moderates on both sides believe they will have crucial leverage to pass bills on issues such as health care, trade and possibly even campaign-finance reform. "The center is much stronger," enthuses Senator John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana. "I love operating in a 50-50 vacuum!" He's excited because it takes 60 votes in his chamber to end debate on a bill; either side will have to woo the 10-plus extra votes from the opposition's moderate ranks. The House isn't quite so close, but the theory still applies: with a lead of just 10 or so seats out of 435 (a couple of House races remain too close to call), Republicans will at least have to placate their moderates to get anything accomplished.

Centrists saw the opportunity to expand their power as early as Election Day. That night, Senator Bob Graham of Florida telephoned several Democrats who had just won Senate seats and asked them to join the New Democrat Coalition, a group of centrists formed last year. As many as five are expected to join, bringing the coalition's size to perhaps 20 members. The four other newly elected Democratic Senators, including that lady named Clinton who gets so much attention, ran as more traditional liberals, and their part in the moderate calculus remains unclear. Aides to the New Democrat Senators have begun to prepare floor strategies for bills on trade and education. They are looking suspiciously like a leadership organization apart from the official one run by minority leader Tom Daschle. Graham is respectful of the leadership in interviews, but he also notes happily, "Legislative politics is now played from the 50-yard line."

Over fruit salad and Reubens in the private Senate dining room eight days after the election, members of the G.O.P.'s moderate Wednesday Group also chalked out a plan for greater prominence. They noted that the Republican Senators who lost on Nov. 7 were mostly conservatives--men like Spencer Abraham of Michigan. "If Spence Abraham had voted the way you voted, would he still be a Senator?" Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania asked his colleagues. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island answered yes, and Maine's Olympia Snowe nodded. The group then outlined how to push for floor votes before the 2002 election (when 20 Republicans but only 14 Democrats in the Senate will be up for re-election) on items such as a patients' bill of rights and campaign-finance reform, stuff that makes swing voters drool. Centrists in both parties say votes on abortion and school prayer, which G.O.P. leaders sometimes schedule without warning, will go nowhere.

There is even some scheming across party lines. Although it had been just a loose 30-member assemblage, the Senate Centrist Coalition plans to meet weekly and hear advice from outside experts on how members from opposing parties can cooperate on complex bills. "The key," says a New Democrat aide, "is to get the moderates thinking like a bloc." In the House, for the first time since anyone can remember, each party's freshman class has established a position of liaison to the other class. (Usually the frosh only elect liaisons to their respective leadership organizations.) "The leadership got this look and said, 'Oh, well, that's new,'" says Rick Larsen, the Congressman-elect from Washington State's Puget Sound.

It's important, however, not to overstate the importance of all the jockeying by the moderates, which is still in formative stages. Today's electoral furor and the soul searching it engenders will eventually ebb; well-dressed lobbyists, obdurate interest-group leaders and entrenched committee chairmen will have the run of Capitol Hill soon enough. Moreover, many members of the party that loses the White House will squawk that the President's mandate to pass laws is tinier than a ballot punch hole. Attack dogs in the House are preparing to exert party control over moderates. And everyone is talking about 2002.

Still, even in the more partisan House, the sheer number of centrists is impressive: the New Democrat Coalition will have as many as 75 members, the Republican Mainstreet Partnership about 60. "That's a big bloc, and we can do an awful lot," says veteran Republican Congressman Amo Houghton. G.O.P. Representative Jim Leach and Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio are working together on the presidential mess; they have joint- ly proposed a massive study of the Electoral College and new balloting technologies.

Horrified by the rancor in Florida, the still idealistic freshmen have actually behaved like adults since the election. At last week's welcome dinner for new House members, Democrat Larsen sought out fellow dentist and Republican Charlie Norwood, a Georgian with a perfect rating from the Christian Coalition. They had a good talk about the patients' bill of rights over duck and pasta. Earlier in the week Larsen had returned to his hotel room one night to find a fruit basket. In years past it might have been from his party's chairman. This one was sent by Republican Representative Butch Otter of Idaho, a conservative but not a party-line guy. "Sure, these are just gestures being made," says Larsen, "but they say, 'Let's find some ways to work together.'" If they do, and cooperation blossoms, that would be magic worthy of Harry Potter indeed. --With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington


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Cover Date: November 27, 2000

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