The Ultimate Senate Gang

August, 2013

Washington -- As Congress sinks even lower in its inability to measure up to the nation's challenges, one of the few bright spots is the emergence of Senate "gangs" to deal in a bipartisan manner with otherwise intractable problems. These gangs have been ad hoc groupings tied to specific issues, such as judicial confirmations and immigration.

It is time to think beyond these gangs and for the Senate Republicans who have participated in them to consider the formation of the ultimate gang, a temporary -- through the 2014 elections -- Independent Conservative party.

This temporary party, which would need about 8-10 Senate members, would position itself in the middle of the two existing parties and wield effective control over the filibuster, the procedural tool that now hamstrings the Senate. Its members would either threaten to bolt the Republicans and caucus with the Democrats, or actually do it in exchange for some major concessions from the Democrats. Those concessions might involve bringing entitlement reform to the floor, or revenue-neutral tax overhaul, or both.

Yes, the Republican caucus might try to strip these new Independent Conservatives from their committee assignments and positions. But the answer to such a threat would be a question: "Do you want me back in the Republican caucus in 2015? If so, leave my committee assignments (and the staffs and budgets that go with them) alone."

In parliamentary systems it is common for parties positioned in the middle to exercise a great deal of influence. In Germany, the FDP for decades has joined with either the SPD or the CDU to govern the country; its influence far exceeds its power at the polls. Being in the middle is an enviable position.

In the U.S. Senate there are perhaps a dozen gang-minded or independent Republicans who could feasibly form a temporary political party, because they are not up for re-election in 2014, or they are retiring, or it would not hurt them back home to become an independent for purposes of breaking the Senate gridlock. In the first category are McCain, Murkowski, Coats, Hoeven, Portman, Corker, Grassley, and Burr; retiring are Chambliss and Johanns; Collins would not be hurt by becoming independent in Maine.

This would foil those who want to shut down the government, default on the national debt, or play brinksmanship with national security. It would create a dynamic that would require the White House to engage with the Senate rather than endlessly sending the president on fruitless campaign-like appearances around the country. It would lessen the House's hyper-partisan leverage. Public opinion would likely be with senators who put the national interest ahead of partisanship.