The redeeming feature of American politics--what saves some of us from becoming totally discouraged about its vagaries--is the dynamic quality of the system. When politicians and officeholders behave in a way the public despises, they usually alter their behavior.
At the end of two years of contentious and unproductive partisan warfare on Capitol Hill, there are glimmerings of a change. Not only were a few end-of-session deals made on bills and nominations that had been held hostage far too long, but the groundwork was laid in the Senate for a dialogue across party lines that could produce more substantial progress on larger issues in the future.
On Nov. 1 Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, sent their colleagues a letter of invitation to a late-afternoon meeting, two days later, to revive an almost moribund informal caucus called the Centrist Coalition.
The letter began by saluting the late Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, the moderate Republican whose sudden death the week before had stunned and saddened so many on Capitol Hill. "As we celebrate his life and commitment to public service," Breaux and Snowe wrote, "we should continue looking for opportunities to work together in the bipartisan spirit that Senator Chafee best exemplified."
Maybe it was the emotion stirred by Chafee's death. Maybe it was the frustration of seeing another session of Congress approach its end with little work done. Maybe it was the growing realization in both parties that the voters' impatience with politics as usual was reaching a boil.
Whatever the reason, almost one-quarter of the 100 senators--equally divided between Republicans and Democrats--carved out time at the end of a busy day and said, in effect, "Let's do it. Let's try governing from the center."
The only decision made on Nov. 3 was to meet every two weeks when Congress comes back to work in January. But talking with Breaux and Snowe last week, it was clear these two down-to-earth veterans of both the House and Senate sense that the time may be right for a fresh start at consensus-building.
Chafee and Breaux had a Centrist Coalition that worked doggedly to find a compromise on health care legislation in 1994, but that effort was swept away by the partisan warfare over the Clinton plan. After the shutdown of government in the winter of 1995-96, the group began meeting again. A bipartisan budget proposal that emerged from the Centrist Coalition actually received 46 votes--just five short of a majority--in 1997. But the fierce struggle over the impeachment and possible removal of President Clinton in 1998 and early 1999 put the kibosh on such bipartisanship.
Reviving a centrist coalition across party lines will not be easy in a year when the presidency and control of Congress are at stake. But, as Breaux said, "there's a real strong feeling that things have gotten much too polarized up here. They're not going right. Every week, both sides go to their separate caucus meetings and hear their pollsters tell them how to blame the other side for gridlock. There's no place where we can talk about how we might work together."
Snowe echoed that view. "Everything up here is very separate, very divided. There's no instrument to break down those walls of separateness. It is degrading the Senate. I hear it at home. It has not gone unnoticed by the public."
I certainly heard that when I was on the road the latter half of October, interviewing voters. But now there is polling evidence that bears it out. Andrew Kohut, in a Pew Research Center study released a few days ago, found that 68 percent of the voters "say that Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been bickering and opposing one another more than usual this year." That is the highest figure in any of his surveys since 1995, on the eve of the shutdown of government.
Kohut also found in his study of underlying attitudes and values that "centrism is back" among the voters, reflected in the growth of "a clear, well-defined moderate" group of Republicans (of which Snowe long has been an example), whose views resemble those of "new Democrats" such as former Democratic Leadership Council chairman Breaux.
The test will be whether the two dozen Centrist Coalition members can form a cohesive bloc on specific issues--and force the more polarized leaders of both parties to deal with them. They will have plenty of opportunities.
"We've left so much on the table," Breaux said, "with Social Security, Medicare, campaign-finance and managed-care reform" all stymied by partisan differences. Having the centrists talking to each other is at least a first step toward a breakthrough.