Moderate Democrats are now in play in Senate

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), July 9, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), July 9, 2014, in Washington, D.C. MCT

Moderate Democrats in the Senate are feeling downright frisky these days.

Long taken for granted in the majority, they now are poised to flex newfound muscle in a Republican-controlled Senate where their votes will be crucial to both parties.

On one hand, they’ll be courted by incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who’ll have at most 54 seats from his party starting in January and will need six more to pass legislation against a filibuster by the Democrats. On the other, they’ll be wooed by soon-to-be Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., struggling to keep his caucus together to block GOP bills from reaching President Barack Obama’s desk.

Already, moderate Democratic senators such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are in play, and loving it. They, along with Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, voted against Reid in his successful candidacy for minority leader, signaling their displeasure with the way the Democratic caucus has conducted its business in the past.

One example: Reid long blocked the Senate from voting on a proposal from Landrieu and others to push approval of the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline, lest it pass and force Obama to sign or veto it. Now, Reid will allow the vote, on Tuesday.

Another: Moderate Democrats were among 30 senators from both parties who co-signed letters to McConnell and Reid last week urging them to hold bipartisan lunches at least once a month to “help foster the kind of productive relationships that will be critical for the Senate to live up to its reputation as the world’s most deliberative body.”

“We have to begin to find those things we can work on together,” said McCaskill.

“If we can get out of this mode of just trying to make the other guys look bad and get back to working on the things we can agree on – that’s why, as part of the kind of moderate middle in the Senate, I hope to be somebody who’s driving people to the center instead of the politics of today, which has a tendency to be on the edges,” she said Sunday on CBS.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who chairs the Senate Republican conference, said his party’s outreach to moderate Democrats was well underway. He said finding common ground with Democrats might prove valuable in trying to pass legislation on trade and attempting to revamp the tax system.

“They’re pretty important. As you know, it takes 60 to do anything of real consequence in the Senate, so we’re going to have to reach out to and hopefully build some alliances and coalitions with Democrats,” Thune said. “There are already existing relationships. There will be more of those discussions.”

Still, winning over moderate Democrats isn’t a slam-dunk path to 60 votes for the Republicans.

McConnell must keep nearly all his Republican troops in the fold, something that might prove problematic with the 2016 presidential election looming. If he’s viewed as moving too far to the center, he can expect challenges from conservative lawmakers such as Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Marco Rubio, R-Fla. , and Rand Paul, R-Ky., all potential presidential candidates.

At the same time, three to five Republican senators will be out raising money and courting support for 2016 in early voting states, aiming their message at the party’s conservative base.

“That’s like an electromagnet pulling Mitch McConnell’s caucus away from the idea of working out deals where you give a little and get a little,” Norman Ornstein, a political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, said in a recent forum at the research center.

Still, moderate Democrats appear willing to listen to what their Republican counterparts have to say – a testament to their frustration under Reid, who they thought wasn’t accommodating to their causes, and the need to show their independence to voters in their red and purple states.

Heitkamp and Manchin, for example, are up for re-election in their red states in 2018. Warner just survived an unexpectedly close contest against former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie.

“The message I heard on the campaign trail was that Virginians are frustrated with the dysfunction and gridlock that has become the status quo in Washington,” Warner said in a statement explaining his vote against Reid.

“That has to change. We need an open process where we debate and vote on the serious issues we face, and I have been encouraged by statements from both leaders that they are determined to make the United States Senate a functioning body once again.”