Throughout the Bush Administration years, Maine's Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, successfully honed their hard-earned reputations as 'moderates'. Whether opposing tax cuts, supporting caps on Carbon Dioxide emissions, blocking passage of free trade agreements and drilling in the Arctic, or breaking with their party on numerous other occasions, one or the other (and often both) frequently and effectively checked the power of Republican rule – much to the chagrin of their GOP colleagues.
As a result, the people of Maine, rightfully suspicious of unchecked power, have rewarded their independent senators by repeatedly returning them to office. As of January 20, 2009, however, there has been no Republican rule to balance. Barack Obama is President and has healthy Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. The only remaining Republican power rests in its potential to filibuster – and thus block – legislation supported by the Democratic House, Senate Democrats and the Obama Administration.
With this new power paradigm, the role of a 'moderate' Republican in the U.S. Senate has turned on its head. Rather than curbing the perceived excesses of their own party, a 'moderate' Republican senator – to deserve the label – must stick with her party in preventing passage of extreme liberal legislation. Breaks with Republicans on critical votes will denote a liberal, not moderate, Republican, as the once-pipe dreams of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the liberal Democratic base are now just a vote or two away from becoming a reality.
Take a few examples. The Senate will soon take up the massive spending bill – misleadingly labeled a ‘stimulus’ package – that reads like a liberal wish list. The spending bill was opposed by all House Republicans as well as a number of Democrats, yet was rammed through the House by Speaker Pelosi. Could this legislation rightly be called moderate?
There will likely be a vote this year on labor unions' push to eliminate the secret ballot vote that even liberal former presidential candidate George McGovern has outspokenly opposed. Would a moderate support eliminating the sacred right to vote in privacy, simply to curry favor with big labor bosses struggling to retain union membership?
The Senate may also consider legislation singling out conservative talk radio for First Amendment restrictions, while leaving liberal television programs and newspapers able to speak as freely as before, through the so-called Fairness Doctrine—a transparent effort to advantage liberal propaganda by stifling conservative voices. Hardly an effort any moderate would support.
But perhaps those examples do not suffice. After all, they are somewhat controversial even within the Democratic caucus. Yet as Maine's independent senators broke with their Republican majority so frequently, there will now be abundant opportunities to stick with their party in the name of moderation. Votes will be taken on bills that harm small businesses and entrepreneurs’ efforts to create jobs and provide healthcare coverage for their employees. Votes will be taken on budgets that simply cannot be paid for without increasing the deficit or suffocating the middle class with tax hikes. Votes will be taken on bills that slash funding for America's military during wartime, betraying our troops and further diminishing America's standing in the world. Votes will be taken on healthcare initiatives that pretend to reduce costs, yet simply shift the cost to taxpayers while seizing from consumers the right to decide for themselves what best fits their healthcare needs. Votes will be taken on legislation that would dramatically increase the electricity bills of struggling Americans. Many, many votes will be taken. Would supporting liberal initiatives such as these be 'moderate'? By any objective standard, the answer is no.
Yet, the power and importance of Senators Snowe and Collins over the next two years is difficult to overestimate. Given the Maine senators' history, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will most certainly petition them for their decisive support in breaking filibusters and passing contentious Democratic legislation. What sort of goodies will Reid offer in exchange for their votes? Is a little pork for Maine worth a hazardous national policy?
What is a 'moderate' to do?