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New England’s GOP senators find strength in moderation

Working with Democrats gives them more sway

Maine’s Republican senators, Olympia Snowe (left) and Susan Collins, are considered key swing votes on a Democrat-backed overhaul of financial regulations. Maine’s Republican senators, Olympia Snowe (left) and Susan Collins, are considered key swing votes on a Democrat-backed overhaul of financial regulations. (Associated Press/ File)
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / April 19, 2010

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WASHINGTON — New England Republicans have reemerged as a pivotal political force in the US Senate, able to block bills they don’t like while offering the Democrats their best chance of capturing the critical GOP votes needed to approve legislation in the deeply partisan body.

The region’s moderate Republicans had for decades played a deciding role on major issues, but their votes became less important when Democrats reached a supermajority of 60 last year. The election in January of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, however, has forced Democrats to trawl the other side of the aisle for votes — and New England’s lawmakers are proving to be the most likely to help the Democrats.

Brown provided key votes to ensure passage of a $15 billion jobs bill backed by Democrats in February and joined fellow GOP Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, in efforts to advance a series of bills that would extend benefits to the jobless.

Brown’s election “does create, I think, an added dimension. It gives strength to our voice, to the middle ground, to centrism, to consensus-building,’’ said Snowe.

A key test of that strength and their ability to shape legislation could be the Senate’s next big battle: a Democrat-backed overhaul of financial regulation intended to prevent another economic meltdown.

Brown yesterday, in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,’’ dug in deeply against the bill, pledging to join a GOP filibuster to block it in its present form and calling for more negotiation. However, unlike the health care bill, which passed without a single Republican vote in its final form, the financial package is expected to offer more common ground among Democrats and Republicans.

Key Republicans have said a bill would probably eventually pass, and Collins, the last holdout in the GOP push to create a united opposition front, and Snowe are considered key swing votes. Both Maine senators — and Brown — have expressed a desire to renegotiate parts of the bill.

When asked yesterday on the CBS program about his impressions of Washington, Brown said he was disappointed by the political polarization in Congress and would work with both parties.

“Washington is broken,’’ Brown said. “There’s too much partisan politics involved. And as I’ve said before, I’ll be the 41st vote when it’s appropriate and when it deals with issues affecting my state and this country. And I’ll be the 60th vote, because we need to get things moving.’’

While still defining himself in his new post, Brown is not seen as moderate by Democrats. But they hope that the freshman lawmaker will continue to display the independent streak of other New England Republicans, such as Senator Judd Gregg and former senator John Sununu. Both Granite State lawmakers are solid conservatives who sometimes voted against party leadership.

Brown’s first aisle-crossing vote — to stop a filibuster of the jobs bill — “made a big difference, created some momentum,’’ said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. On other bills intended to get the economy moving, the votes of New England moderates are considered essential, Democrats say.

Last week, Snowe and Collins joined Democrats to approve a bill to restore an extension of jobless benefits. Although he voted against the bill, Brown had earlier joined with the Maine senators to break a GOP filibuster that threatened to prevent final consideration of it.

The Bay State’s senior senator, Democrat John Kerry, said he hopes he and Brown can agree on other issues. “Every vote’s a vote,’’ Kerry said of Brown’s “aye’’ on the jobs package. “I’m not going to make any predictions about what he’s going to choose to do. Obviously, we want to work together, we want to work for Massachusetts and New England. I hope we’ll see more votes similarly than different.’’

Kerry is also hopeful of garnering support from New England Republicans on another major Democratic priority, climate change legislation. With Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, Kerry has been crafting a bill that is expected to be released this month. Both Collins and Snowe, a strong supporter of environmental protections who is the ranking minority member on a subcommittee on oceans and the atmosphere, have been discussing the proposals with Kerry.

And while Brown’s upset election to the Senate this year deprived Democrats of the 60 votes they need to break GOP filibusters, lawmakers say his very presence has changed the political environment. Since Democrats now have no choice but to reach out to at least a few Republicans to pass legislation, the process is by necessity somewhat less partisan than it was when Democrats could pass bills without any GOP support.

“He changed the dynamic for the better, ironically,’’ said Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat seeking GOP support for his financial regulation package.

Brown’s win might even have been a key factor on the health care passage. “I think, frankly, the fact that we had 59 votes and not 60 actually caused Democrats to do things,’’ Dodd said.

Had Senate Democrats held enough votes to overcome a GOP filibuster, Dodd said, the House probably would not have approved the Senate health care version and followed up with a package of “fixes.’’

“They might have said, you know what, go back and do it again,’ ’’ Dodd said.

When the Democrats had 60 votes, the power players were the more conservative members of their caucus, such as Lieberman and Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. Instead of being guaranteed a win on every bill, Democratic leaders were forced to find ways to appease those lawmakers to get their votes. That sometimes resulted in such reviled deals as the “Cornhusker Kickback’’ Medicaid windfall Nelson secured in the original Senate health care bill.

But now that Democrats must secure at least one GOP vote to break filibusters, the focus has shifted back to New England, where both Democrats and Republicans pride themselves on their independent streak.

Snowe and Collins, joined by former moderate GOP Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, were key players in forging compromises in the early part of the decade.

That model can be delicate, however, in a highly-charged political environment. Chafee, for example, lost to Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in 2006, in part because some conservative Republicans were irritated with Chafee’s moderate politics and did not rally around him.

Brown, too, is feeling a pushback from conservatives who are angry at his handful of votes advancing Democratic legislation. And while those votes may boost him in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, Brown could run into trouble in fund-raising.

But the region’s voters are more likely to reward candidates with mixed voting records, said Representative Paul Hodes, a Democrat seeking to succeed the retiring Gregg in November.

“I think it’s a tradition in New England to look more at the person, the issues, the authenticity of the character of the person, rather than the ‘D’ or ‘R’ or even ‘I’ after their names,’’ said Hodes. “You can see it in Massachusetts with Scott Brown.’’