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Calling all moderate Republicans

Congress has so few moderate Republicans that at least in the Senate they could squeeze into a Volkswagen Beetle.

Their ranks have dwindled in recent elections. Those who remain in politics have been marginalized by their own party, which has inexorably veered to the right over the last generation.

But this beleaguered minority has an opportunity to wield outsized influence on what President-elect Barack Obama can accomplish in Congress.

Although Democrats made big congressional gains in the 2008 election, they are still a vote or two short of the 60-vote majority they need in the Senate to keep a tight rein on GOP filibusters that can easily gum up the works.

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The support of just one or two moderate Republicans could be decisive in a close, party-line vote on issues such as union rights and economic rescue plans. So though there may be fewer moderates in Congress, they are in for a lot of attention.

“The power of moderates is declining in the country: They are fewer in number and the country has polarized,” said Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. “But in any vote where you are down to one to two votes there are always going to be people in the middle who have decisive power.”

Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Obama’s incoming budget director, Peter R. Orszag, have met with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) about economic stimulus legislation. Obama’s team has consulted Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), an expert on education, about school issues. Obama’s choice for secretary of Transportation -- Ray LaHood of Illinois -- was a moderate GOP leader in the House until he retired this year.

But if recent elections are any guide, being a moderate -- one who supports abortion rights, for example, opposed the war in Iraq or supported labor unions -- is hazardous to a Republican’s political health.

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Swing voters have been alienated by President Bush’s policies and perceptions that the Republican Party is dominated by extremists.

The litany of Republican lawmakers who lost reelection over the last few years includes such centrists as Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.), who were defeated in 2008. Retirees this year included such moderates as Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.).

In the House, where there is strict majority rule, Democrats will have little need to court Republicans to pass most of their agenda.

But in the Senate, a minority of 41 can filibuster to prevent a bill from coming to a vote. Senate Democrats will probably wind up with 58 or 59 members, depending on the outcome of a disputed election in Minnesota.

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The election results -- by depleting moderate Republican ranks -- leave the congressional GOP more dominated than ever by its more dauntless conservatives, such as Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who led the charge in the lame-duck session that killed an auto industry bailout.

Moderate Republicans worry that their party’s conservative wing is not going to change its ways in response to the GOP’s election drubbing.

“I would hope that the more conservative members of our caucus would take a look at these election results,” Collins said. “It’s difficult to make the argument that our candidates lost because they were not conservative enough.”

It remains to be seen how aggressively Republicans will try to wield the filibuster threat. They have recently signaled they will fight Obama’s economic recovery plan if it moves too quickly. But there are political risks if the GOP is seen as obstructionist at a time when voters are clamoring for economic relief and change.

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Though the ranks of Republican moderates have been dwindling, more moderate Democrats have been elected, such as Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, which may expand the Democrats’ political center.

Democrats have actually sought to recruit more conservative candidates and made that a key part of their strategy to reclaim a congressional majority. That however, means it is not certain that Senate Democrats will vote in lock-step, making it even more important that they build a bridge to moderate Republicans.

One issue on which Republicans are spoiling for a fight is legislation to make it easier for unions to organize workers -- a top labor priority. If Democrats are going to pass the bill in the Senate, they may well need Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the only Republican who voted to bring the bill to a vote the last time it came up.

But the issue puts Specter in a particularly tough position that is a typical quandary for Republican moderates. Facing reelection in 2010, he hails from a state where unions are strong and the electorate is becoming more and more Democratic. That puts pressure on him to support the labor bill.

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But Specter often faces opposition from fellow Republicans for being too liberal: In 2004, he faced a tough primary challenge from the right by Pat Toomey, who is now president of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax conservative group.

Toomey says that if Specter casts a decisive vote on the labor bill, “he virtually assures he will deal with a primary challenge and he hands the challenger a powerful issue.”

Specter said in a recent interview with the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call that the situation assured that moderates would be at the center of controversy.

“There are only a few of us moderates -- we could fit in a phone booth,” he said. “To make that 60th vote, it may be that we’ll be in big demand.”

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janet.hook@latimes.com


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