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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Power players

Politics | With GOP influence dwindling, moderate Democrats may be the only senators who can slow President Obama's ambitious agenda

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

Sweat-streaked hair falling over his eyes, Sen. Jefferson Smith croaked to skeptical Senate colleagues that he would not stand for "graft" in the pending legislation: "I can hold this floor a little short of doomsday. I've got a piece to speak-and blow hot or cold, I'm going to speak it," he said hoarsely in the middle of a 24-hour filibuster speech.

Of course this winded oratory was not over the Obama stimulus package. In fact, Smith isn't even a senator, but actor Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Modern-day Republican senators wish they had Smith's filibustering power to stop Democratic legislation. Thanks to a measure included in the 2010 budget agreement already approved by Congress (without a single Republican vote), senators can pass health-care reform with a simple majority of 51 votes-and not the usual "super majority" of 60 needed to break a Senate filibuster.

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With the roster of Senate Democrats now standing at 59 after the recent defection of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, this dynamic change in Senate procedure puts massive health-care reform on a fast track to passage.

It also sends a message, conservatives say, that Republicans will not be needed as the White House and Congress seek an overhaul of the medical insurance industry that could lead to government-managed health care. This mammoth reform could now come without a single Republican vote despite past verbal overtures for bipartisanship from Obama and other Democratic leaders. Lawmakers also included the bold "reconciliation" maneuver to allow education reform to circumvent the traditional Senate rules.

No less a Democratic stalwart than Sen. Robert Byrd, the Democrat from West Virginia now in his 50th year in the Senate, broke party ranks to vote against the budget, warning that reconciliation would lead to a "rigged pseudo-debate on health care."

"Using reconciliation to ram through complicated, far-reaching legislation is an abuse of the budget process. This is a very messy way to achieve a goal like health-care reform."

So with the health-care debate set for a summer showdown of federal bureaucracy versus free market, the question arises: Will Republicans walk into the congressional chambers with not only zero bullets but no guns in their holsters? With House Democrats enjoying a fat 78-seat majority and Senate Democrats possessing at least eight more votes then needed, is Democratic-stamped health-care reform (and education overhaul) a fait accompli?

One answer to who can slow the Obama train, according to Dennis Whitfield with the American Conservative Union, is moderate Democrats. Coming largely from Southern and Midwestern red states that vote Republican for president and boast a lot of independent voters, these moderate Democrats are self-described fiscal conservatives. Their states continue to be hit hard by the economy and residents there get a little worried about government spending and higher taxes.

Now the current congressional calculus is putting this centrist voting bloc in prime position to put their own stamp on Obama's legislative agenda. Concerned about their own reelections, these Democrats have soul-searching decisions to make regarding how deep they are willing to wade into the liberal end of their party.

"They should be very cautious about how far they go along with Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid," said Whitfield. "These are the people on the Democratic side who may say wait a minute."

A few have already said wait a ­minute. Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., both voted against Obama's budget. "I've been a fiscal conservative throughout my career," Bayh, up for reelection in 2010, recently said on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace. "It's nothing personal to the president."

Bayh, whose state approval rating shot to 74 percent in a poll released after he voted against Obama's budget, added: "We don't want the government intruding any more than it has to in the private sector. When it comes to health care, we don't want socialized medicine." For his part, Nelson has opposed Obama's cap-and-trade energy plan.

Sensing their rising star status, Bayh, Nelson, and 13 other Senate Democrats, three of whom are up for reelection, formed a moderate working group in March to ensure the more liberal wing of the party does not ignore their voices. Using adjectives like "pragmatic," "practical," and "fiscally responsible," the new group pledged not to be automatic Democratic votes.

The group, which contains numerous freshman senators from traditionally Republican-leaning states looking to shore up their moderate mantle, joins the long-established House "Blue Dog" faction of about 50 conservative Democrats.

But Mike Franc with the Heritage Foundation says moderate Democrats deserve bad marks so far. Their bite has not been as strong as their bark. In some of Congress' biggest votes this year-on the stimulus, the budget, TARP financial bailout funds, a measure that rolled back welfare reform, the expansions of both government-funded health care for children and the government-run AmeriCorps volunteer program-moderate Democrats have voted with the most liberal wing of their party nearly two-thirds of the time, according to Franc.

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