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Cooler heads prevailing

Moderates in Congress are trumping the right -- for now

Rep. Joel Hefley
  • Rep. Joel Hefley

Moderates are showing lately that they can wield power in a highly partisan Congress, succeeding in blocking controversial judicial nominees, reversing changes to ethics rules and passing a bill for embryonic stem-cell research.

"I think this is a pretty rare thing that's occurring -- control of Congress by a group of moderates on some issues," said Seth Masket, a political science professor for the University of Denver. "Obviously, it's not an easy goal to accomplish."

Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) are among those who have crossed party lines in the name of progress.

But whether you agree with what's happening depends on your political leanings, Masket says.

On one hand, moderates are preventing right-wingers from running roughshod in Congress. On the other, critics say moderates are compromising the Democratic Party.

Last week, seven Democrats, including Salazar, joined seven Republicans in a deal that essentially wrested power from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was pushing President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. Frist's threat to use the "nuclear option" to eliminate the filibuster was dropped when the moderate Democrats paved the way for three judges to be OK'd for confirmation votes. Priscilla Owen, who is known for her anti-abortion stance, was among the judges.

Rep. Diana DeGette
  • Rep. Diana DeGette

In the process, two other controversial judges were blocked entirely.

Salazar spokesman Cody Wertz says moderates will continue to keep their alliance, possibly affecting Supreme Court nominations.

"So far, everyone has kept up their end of the agreement," Wertz said.

To explain the newfound power of moderates, look no further than public opinion polls, Masket says. A recent national poll showed Bush with a 46 percent approval rating, with 58 percent saying Republican leaders were acting like "spoiled children" after Frist's nuclear threat.

Republicans from districts with high numbers of unaffiliated voters appear worried as they set their sights on the 2006 mid-term elections, Masket says.

He says it also helps explain why DeGette was successful in forging a large, bipartisan coalition to end the president's ban on using federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research.

"This is the only bill I can remember, other than campaign finance reform, that we have passed over the objections of the Republican leadership in the eight years I've been there," DeGette said.

Rep. Ken Salazar
  • Rep. Ken Salazar

Research of embryonic stem cells could lead to medical advances, such as the healing of spinal cord injuries -- a concept that Americans back in polls, but is staunchly opposed by religious groups like Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Moderates also exercised their influence after Hefley was removed as chairman of the House Ethics Committee in the wake of the committee's admonishments of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for ethics breaches.

Soon after, DeLay succeeded in a bid to alter House rules to make it harder for the ethics committee to investigate complaints.

When Democrats protested, they found support from Hefley, who made a series of public statements, including one with co-chairman Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), saying the new rules would degenerate the committee into a farce. Ultimately, moderates reversed the change in rules.

Masket isn't sure how long the trend will continue. He notes that a theme in each case has been what the Christian right wants, and says many politicians are listening.

"They may try and punish some Republicans for not standing with them," he said. "That said, they can't outgun the power of public opinion, which is, at the moment, against them."

-- Michael de Yoanna

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