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In My Opinion: The Moderate Who Roared

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After the extremely close elections last year, which created a virtual tie between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, there was much talk about “bipartisanship.”

But that’s all it was — talk — until Senator Jim Jeffords took matters into his own hands. By switching his party label from Republican to Independent, the Vermont senator shook up the political landscape on Capitol Hill and exposed the ham-handed ideological bullying by conservative hard-liners like Senate GOP leader Trent Lott and top White House strategist Karl Rove.

Jeffords was one of the few surviving members of what used to be called the “moderate wing” of the Republican Party. Today it’s more like a coat closet than a wing.

The GOP used to be a more comfortable place for centrists like Jeffords — politicians who are fiscally conservative but socially moderate to liberal and often friendly toward worker issues.

In past years, many of these Republicans received labor support to at least some degree. I’m thinking of Senators Jacob Javitz of New York, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, John Heinz of Pennsylvania, Chuck Percy of Illinois, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon, Mack Mathias of Maryland.

The Republican Party has made a hard shift to the right over the past 20 years. Looking back, it is clear that even President Richard Nixon led much more from the center than his successors in the GOP. Landmark environmental legislation was one of the legacies of his administration, and Nixon even supported the Equal Rights Amendment.

Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, set a harsh anti-union tone, making permanent striker replacement an acceptable model. Then with the GOP takeover of the House and the ascendency of such leaders as Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Tom DeLay of Texas, together with Lott in the Senate, the congressional agenda has been dictated by the party’s right wing.

After the close 2000 election races, Republican leaders might have been expected to turn to their more moderate members to help build bridges to the Democrats and forge a bipartisan legislative program. In fact they did the opposite, using strong-arm tactics to try to whip moderates like Senator Jeffords into line.

Trent Lott isolated Jeffords within the Senate leadership and President Bush openly snubbed him because of the senator’s reservations over the size of the Bush tax cut plan. They gave short shrift to Jeffords’ legislative priorities in the area of education reform and help for the disabled. As it turned out, they picked on the wrong guy.

With Jeffords’ defection, party control of the Senate switched to the Democrats, but the balance is still razor thin, essentially tied. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, so neither party can move legislation without significant support from the other side.

But the shift could mean a step toward fulfilling President Bush’s empty promise — that of “changing the tone in Washington.”

Republican leaders will need to pay more attention to moderates in their ranks or risk losing further ground. For instance, Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has hinted that he might consider a party switch if the conservative hard-liners hold sway and regain control down the road.

The new landscape should give a lift to those GOP senators who are willing to seek compromise and work in a bipartisan fashion, such as Arizona’s John McCain, often described as a “maverick” who has been kept at arms’ length by his party’s leadership. McCain is co-sponsor with Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) of the stronger of the proposed patient’s rights bills, which would allow for suits against health care providers both in federal and state courts.

For working families, the most important result of the leadership switch may be the changes in committee chairmanships and the fact that the legislative agenda is no longer set by leaders who reflexively side with corporate interests over working people (see page 7).

Democrats and moderate Republicans have a better chance of preventing anti-worker bills from coming to the floor of the Senate. One example is the amendment to the Family and Medical Leave Act sponsored by Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) which would seriously weaken this vital legislation by restricting health conditions presently covered by FMLA. This crippling amendment now is unlikely to get out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee under the chairmanship of Ted Kennedy.

The ability to stymie anti-worker legislation in the Senate is important considering that the House is still controlled by extreme right hard-liners like Tom DeLay, and the fact that President Bush so far has taken an anti-worker stance, such as in opposing ergonomic standards and curtailing worker protections and standards on federal projects.

Divided government need not mean gridlock. But achieving progress in solving important problems in such areas as education, health care and Social Security indeed will require a different tone in Washington. It means the White House and congressional leaders are going to have to learn to govern more from the center — where most Americans are politically — rather than from ideological extremes.