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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Centrist Democrats Hold Possible Cure - .Washington reaches the logical nadir of its current dysfunction at week's end with the arrival of the sequester, an approach to deficit-cutting so mindless that when the idea was hatched just 18 months ago, everyone agreed the two parties would never actually accept it.

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Washington reaches the logical nadir of its current dysfunction at week's end with the arrival of the sequester, an approach to deficit-cutting so mindless that when the idea was hatched just 18 months ago, everyone agreed the two parties would never actually accept it.

And this moment is being met by, well, nothing. The most stunning aspect of the latest budget impasse is that nobody really is scurrying around to prevent it. With the arrival of the sequester's automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, the government is about to go on autopilot.

This may not meet the technical definition of a power vacuum, but it comes pretty close. And given that nature abhors a vacuum, eventually something will fill it.

Here's a thought about who could—perhaps should—do that: a group of younger, moderate Democrats in the Senate.

What Washington badly needs right now are people to serve as a bridge between the two parties. Things have gotten so bad that some congressional Republicans won't even accept invitations from President Barack Obama to attend social events at the White House, the sorts of activities that used to serve as natural lubricants in making the capital work.

Moderate and conservative Democrats often have formed this bridge between the parties. They have gone by various labels: Scoop Jackson Democrats in the Cold War era, named after the Washington state hawk who shared GOP views about the Soviet threat; Boll Weevil Democrats in the Reagan era; and Blue Dog and Third Way Democrats since.

A similar role has been played by liberal Republicans in the past, but they are essentially an extinct species, particularly in the House, which is the center of GOP power in the capital. Hence the opening for moderate Senate Democrats to become the bridge.

To define this group, start with the six Democratic senators running for re-election next year from states carried by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney: Mark Begich of Alaska, Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Add to the list two senators from swing states also running in 2014, Mark Warner of Virginia and Mark Udall of Colorado.

All face voters next year in states where voters either lean red or have limited regard for party labels. All have reason to show they can find middle ground.

Throw in West Virginia's Joe Manchin, Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Indiana's Joe Donnelly, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp and Montana's Jon Tester, who were elected from red state states last year, and you have 13 Democrats who have either the potential or the need—or both—to break the fever that grips the political system.

Within this group are some lawmakers—Mr. Warner in particular comes to mind—who have shown they are itching to break out of the partisan straitjackets holding in both parties.

"The reformers willing to challenge orthodoxy in the Senate right now among Democrats are the Young Turks who are less defined by the political spectrum and more defined by pragmatism—what does it take to get things done?" says Mike McCurry, who was President Bill Clinton's spokesman and before that worked for the premier unconventional Democrat of his time, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

What does that mean in the current case of the sequester? Washington is falling back to the lowest-common-denominator version of deficit cutting because of what has become the standard problem of the past several years: Republicans want the next round of deficit reductions only through spending cuts, while Mr. Obama wants a mix of new revenue and spending cuts.

And on that familiar road, the government is stuck. But the reality is that the two parties' leaders probably aren't as far apart as the sterile rhetoric suggests. Republican leaders have in the past endorsed the very kinds of revenue-producing loophole closings Democrats say they are looking for. Mr. Obama has offered cuts in Democrats' beloved entitlement programs that might provide the grease to get Republicans to sign onto some revenue.

But the leaders are stymied right now by their followers. Republicans think they gave all they need on additional tax revenue in the latest budget deal. Rank-and-file Democrats see no need to give ground on entitlements without more revenue to make the medicine go down better.

A movement from the ground, at the political center, could produce a breakout. There are two cracks at moving onto a different path. One is now, with the sequester, the other comes at the end of March, when the government's entire funding has to be extended, perhaps with more artful deficit cuts than the sequester allows.

Movement in the center, in the Senate, may provide the best way to change the path now being traveled.

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