Moderates unite in U.S. Senate, beating path to Murkowski’s door

Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks behind a podium, flanked by a bipartisan group of moderate senators.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski and fellow moderates in the House and Senate announced their agreement on COVID relief Dec. 1. (C-SPAN)

Moderates in Congress, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, may finally be having their day.

Or so it would seem with a COVID-19 relief bill gaining momentum in the Capitol after months of partisan stalemate.

“It came together when a group of eight people said, ‘There’s got to be a better way,'” Murkowski said.

The bipartisan critical mass came together at her place in D.C., she said, after Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., suggested they meet away from the Capitol.

“You can’t go to a restaurant right now. And I said, ‘Well, you can come to my house, but my husband’s not there, so I don’t have anybody to cook,'” Murkowski recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ll buy dinner.’”

So they met last month. Four Republicans and four Democrats, at Murkowski’s brick rowhouse, a few blocks from the Capitol. (She declined to say what Warner brought for eats, just that it was not pizza.)

They’ve been meeting, or at least talking to each other, ever since.

“Literally every day but Thanksgiving,” Warner said.

Sen. Murkowski amid fellow moderates. (U.S. Senate)

The bipartisan deal that’s emerged from the group includes $300 a week in enhanced unemployment benefits, and continues the Paycheck Protection Program. It has $160 billion for state, local and tribal governments. The whole thing weighs in at $908 billion —a fraction of what Democratic leaders had insisted on, but nearly twice what Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed.

Still, the deal has picked up steam.

Pundits are calling the coalition “revenge of the moderates.”

“Expanding out to six, seven, eight, nine, ten moderates in the Senate really is the most important development if you’re trying to figure out not what happened to the last four years, but what’s going to happen over the next two years,” cable news host Joe Scarborough said Friday on PBS’ Washington Week.

If he’s right, it’s as though the Senate has finally beaten a path to Murkowski’s door, not just literally, but metaphorically.

Moderation is her brand. She meets with colleagues of both parties and tries to craft non-offensive bills that have a little for everyone. She’s done it with energy bills, a series of public lands bills, and has joined efforts on spending bills.

“What I’m trying to do is deliver a result, and the best way that I know to deliver result is to try to get enough people together to pass something,” she said.

That this method of lawmaking is even the least bit remarkable tells you something about what’s happened in Congress lately. Murkowski’s approach has made her seem like an endangered species in recent years.

Wayne State University Professor Jeffrey Grynaviski studies bipartisanship in the Senate. As the nation has become increasingly polarized, he said lawmakers have had more incentive to confront than to compromise.

“Voters and the electorate reward their party for hammering the opposition, and so when politicians stick it to the other side, that seems to rally their base,” he said. “Politicians are aware that if they just stick it to the other team, it’s going be better for them.”

The idea that the Senate used to be above such things? Grynaviski said that may only have been true for one period in history: the Cold War era.

Forecasting isn’t his thing, but Grynaviski’s research dispels the idea that a crisis such as the pandemic will unite Congress toward a common aim.

“When the country is in jeopardy of foreign attack, over the last two hundred years, I think we’ve generally rallied together,” he said. “When we’ve faced crises domestically, we don’t tend to rally together.”

Actually, he said, Congress members sometimes use domestic crises to further their political goals. 

And partisan dynamics could still scuttle the COVID-19 deal.

Leader McConnell said Tuesday he wants to drop the money for state and local governments.

“A lot of members on our side look at the various states that received the $150 billion we did in the CARES Act and wonder if there’s a demonstrable need,” McConnell said Tuesday. (This reluctance goes way back, Grynaviski said: Since the founding of the Republican party, the GOP has opposed helping states pay for state functions.)  

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is a leader in the moderate circle. He said McConnell’s request shows he doesn’t want a deal. The money for state governments is a key component of the compromise, Manchin said, describing it as “emergency spending.”

“We have states that basically are losing frontline workers. They’re laying off,” Manchin told reporters. “Central services will go unfulfilled. And it’s getting deeper and deeper.”

Meanwhile, the White House has proposed its own $916 billion deal, but it includes direct payments to most Americans, rather than enhanced unemployment. Democratic leaders said that won’t fly, and negotiations continue.

Staffers for Rep. Don Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan, both R-Alaska, said they’re considering the proposal. Neither answered questions by email about whether they support funds for state governments. 

This story has been amended to remove the impression that the moderate senators have met in person every day. Some of their discussions have not been face-to-face.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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