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The Dealmaker

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Much has already been written lamenting the retirement of Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who for years has been an important bridge between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, in a polarized and bitter Congress.

Breaux's moderation, personality, manner, and legislative style enabled him to develop close relationships on both sides of the aisle and among members of all ideological stripes. While many senators have sought to be their chamber's deal-maker, few have played that role well -- and fewer still have played it as effectively as Breaux. On more than a few issues, though, even Breaux was unable to bring opposing sides together. (By many accounts, before Breaux, the last person to effectively serve as the Senate's honest broker was then-Sen. Howard Baker Jr., R-Tenn.)

In legislative bodies, the equivalent of the median voter theorem is at work. This political science concept holds that to win, one side needs to consolidate its base and reach out to the voter in the exact ideological center, then add one more voter from the other side. In the Senate, which has unusual rules and dynamics, often much more than one vote from the other side has to be won, particularly if a matter is strongly contested and a filibuster is a lively possibility.

Now that the GOP's Senate majority will be growing by four -- to 55 -- conservatives and Republicans have high hopes that Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee will be able to muscle through much of the Republican agenda. Frist's success -- particularly in instances when he'll need 60 votes to invoke cloture -- could hinge on whether a Democrat emerges who can swing half a dozen members of his party to the GOP side on key compromises. Frist has to worry about holding a half-dozen moderates in his own ranks while trying to siphon votes from across the aisle, where Nebraska's Ben Nelson may be the only truly conservative Democrat left.

But who on the Democratic side could inherit Breaux's deal-maker role? Evan Bayh of Indiana, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Bill Nelson of Florida are possibilities, as is Ben Nelson. Yet none jumps out as the "natural broker in the Breaux tradition," as one veteran lobbyist puts it. All are relatively junior to begin attempting the complicated maneuvering involved in continual deal-making. Breaux, by contrast, has been a member of Congress for 32 years.

So, what will happen if no one emerges as the ringleader of moderate Democrats, as the senator capable of putting together deals with enough Democratic support to ensure a working majority on any given issue? One possibility is that the role will shift from one moderate Democrat to another, depending on the issue. Another possibility is that Senate leaders simply won't be able to create majorities for certain controversial pieces of the GOP agenda.

Some observers speculate that the absence of a single Democratic deal-maker might create an opportunity for a Republican one. Incoming Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., could become an important bridge between the parties. Moderately conservative in his ideology, Isakson is clearly a moderate stylistically. His personality lets him move freely between the two sides to broker deals to the extent that he wants, and to the extent that deal-making is possible in the Senate's currently poisonous environment.

Given President Bush's stated goals of overhauling both Social Security and the tax code, the importance of having one or more "bridge senators" could not be greater. But deal-making has rarely, if ever, been more difficult in the Senate.

In his first term, Bush tended to send a concept -- not a specific proposal -- to Capitol Hill. This strategy allowed Congress to fight it out over the legislation's major provisions, not just its details. If that practice carries over into Bush's second term, Republican leaders will have an even harder time passing administration proposals, especially if there's no Democratic deal-maker in the Senate.

If a deal-maker does emerge, that legislator must be someone who is not hung up on grand principles, someone who has made no enemies, and someone whose personality makes colleagues want to work with him or her.

Right now, the job is wide open. The question is whether anyone has the desire, stamina, and qualifications to fill it.

 
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