GOP moderates poised to gain ground in Congress

With healthcare legislation mired in partisanship, “tea party” activists on the march and GOP leadership dominated by conservatives, Capitol Hill looks like a parched landscape for the withered moderate wing of the Republican Party.

But green shoots are sprouting in Washington and on the campaign trail. A small band of Republican moderates in the Senate broke a logjam on jobs legislation. They added to their ranks with the arrival of another New England Republican, Scott Brown. And several moderate Republicans are in a good position to win Senate seats in November.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, is heavily favored to win an open Senate seat in Delaware.

Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, handily won the party’s primary despite opposition from conservatives.

Other centrist Senate candidates -- such as former Reps. Tom Campbell in California and Rob Simmons in Connecticut, and Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida -- still face conservative opposition in primary contests that are seen as battles for the ideological soul of the party.

But more is at stake. Additional moderates in the Senate could provide a more durable foundation for breaking logjams than any White House summit or lecture on bipartisanship.

“Casting votes that are opposed by the party leadership is very difficult,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of five Republicans who voted with Democrats to end a filibuster on the jobs bill. “I’m very optimistic the elections this year are going to bring back a resurgence of the center.”

That seems paradoxical as Democrats prepare to enact President Obama’s healthcare bill without any Republican support. Senate Democratic leaders are moving to use a fast-track procedure known as reconciliation to protect the effort from filibuster. The idea is for the House to pass the Senate’s healthcare bill, then for both chambers to pass a companion bill by a majority vote.

In a CNN interview Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he expected no Republicans to vote for the bill.

In a separate interview, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that House Democrats were short of votes to pass the Senate healthcare bill, but that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) probably would find a way to pass it.

“I wouldn’t count her out because she is very good at muscling votes,” Ryan said.

Although conservatives have dominated legislative strategy and intraparty debate over the future of the Republican Party, centrists have a stronger hand in swing states.

The Massachusetts special election was a case in point. Brown campaigned on conservative themes and was backed by tea party activists, but he had a middle-of-the-road record on abortion and other social issues. By voting to end the jobs filibuster, Brown served notice that he would not always hew to the GOP line.

That roll call was a watershed for other Republicans too, because during the Obama administration, moderates generally had supported GOP filibusters -- even of bills that Republicans supported. Joining Brown to advance the jobs bill were Maine’s two Republicans, Olympia J. Snowe and Collins, and two retiring senators, George V. Voinovich of Ohio and Christopher S. Bond of Missouri.

The Snowe-Collins-Voinovich axis was familiar in years past. In the George W. Bush presidency, they helped form a bloc of swing votes in battles over tax cuts and spending. But they lost key allies when Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Norm Coleman of Minnesota lost reelection bids in 2008, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania left the GOP to become a Democrat.

Analysts disagree about what constitutes a GOP moderate these days, but most agree there are a lot fewer than 20 years ago. In the past, more Republicans regularly crossed party lines and sympathized with liberal causes such as gun control and stricter environmental protection. New England was their bastion, but the number of Republicans from that region has plummeted.

In January, however, Brown’s election in Massachusetts fueled GOP hopes that the tide may turn.

“What’s happening is the return of the Republican Party to the Northeast and upper Midwest,” Kirk said. “Those voters will have a voice in both parties.”

Republican moderates in primary fights are under heavy pressure to turn to the right. Simmons in Connecticut, for example, has renounced his past support for legislation to combat global warming as he runs to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd. And Simmons has taken to carrying a tea bag in his copy of the Constitution, a nod to grass-roots activists.

But a moderate record and reputation are general-election assets -- if not prerequisites -- in states like Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois, which backed Obama in 2008.

Kirk has parted ways with conservatives on major issues including escalation of the Iraq war, gun control and abortion rights, and he had to contend with a conservative opponent to win the Illinois GOP primary. In Delaware, Castle has been a leader of the House’s most prominent moderate faction, the Tuesday Group. Both Kirk and Castle have been derided by conservatives as RINOs -- “Republicans in Name Only.”

In Florida, Crist trails his conservative opponent, Marco Rubio, a cause celebre for tea party activists. Crist’s “trespasses” include supporting Obama’s economic stimulus law, but the GOP establishment favors him as a stronger general election candidate.

In California, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is favored to win reelection, but it is a sign of bad times for Democrats nationwide that the state is even in doubt. Campbell is the least conservative in a three-way contest for the GOP nomination, but he may not have enough financing to survive the primary. His opponents are Carly Fiorina, the former chief of Hewlett-Packard, and Chuck DeVore, an Orange County assemblyman.

Even if more moderate Republicans make it to the Senate, Democrats will need to refresh their skills in dealing with them. In the healthcare debate, Democrats failed to keep Snowe, who voted for an early version but opposed the final bill.

In an emblem of that failed courtship, Obama invited Snowe to his health policy summit, but not until the day before the event. By then, GOP leaders had picked their own conservative team, and Snowe turned down the White House offer.

Jennifer Duffy, an election analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, put it this way: “What moderates need is for Democrats to use them for something other than props.”