Gang Signs

Why Sens. Collins, Snowe, and Specter can do whatever they want.

Sens. Arlen Specter and Susan Collins. Click image to expand.
Sens. Arlen Specter and Susan Collins

News flash: Vulnerable American men and women who feel powerless and have nowhere to turn are increasingly joining gangs. Welcome to the U.S. Senate.

First there was the Gang of Six Republican moderates who challenged Ronald Reagan on environmental and health issues. Then there was the Gang of Seven GOP members of the House who spoke out against the House banking scandal in the early 1990s. The bipartisan Gang of 14 intervened in the Senate when Republicans threatened to use the “nuclear option” to abolish the filibuster in 2005. Now, as Obama looks for Republican support for his stimulus bill, there is a Gang of Three.

After weeks of partisan gridlock, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania were the only Republicans in either chamber to vote for the stimulus bill Monday evening. That was after hashing out a compromise last Friday that lopped $110 billion off the $900 billion package.

Their stated reasons for supporting the bill sound a lot like Obama’s. “The country cannot afford not to take action,” Specter wrote in Monday’s Washington Post. Collins spoke of the need to “jump-start our economy.” Snowe has been quieter, but Democrats counted on her support: “Olympia Snowe anchors this agreement. She is a rock,” said Sen. Max Baucus, who chairs the finance committee.

But their support is also the result of particular electoral, ideological, and strategic circumstances. For starters, they had more to fear if they voted against the bill. Specter is up for re-election in 2010 in a state that voted decisively for Obama. Snowe and Collins aren’t up until 2012 and 2014, respectively, but Maine also leans Democratic, and they have long been moderate on economic issues.

Ideologically, the three senators could easily be Democrats. Specter has broken with his party often, most conspicuously on funding for stem-cell research. Snowe fought hard in 2003 against Bush’s $700 billion in tax cuts. Collins was one of three Republicans to oppose the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions. Both Snowe and Collins have supported labor rights provisions in free-trade agreements, and both voted to acquit Bill Clinton during his Senate trial. It’s no surprise that these Republicans would be the first to break off.

There’s also the pork factor. The White House estimates that the stimulus would create or save 16,000 jobs in Maine, plus a potential $150 million for schools to offset costs of renovations (although that provision may get axed during negotiations). In Pennsylvania, the bill would create or save more than 150,000 jobs. All three senators are known for fiscal restraint, but a local boost during tough times can’t hurt.

But perhaps the strongest incentive is raw, unalloyed power. Senators already have a lot of it—they serve long terms, they craft the national agenda, they can put a hold on any bill. But that power is magnified in the ideological center, especially when the vote count is close. With Democrats controlling 58 seats in the Senate—59 if Al Franken ends up winning Minnesota—the importance of a single Republican is huge. Magnifying it further is the “survivorship bias” of the Republican caucus. Many moderate members of Congress were voted out of office in 2006 and 2008, leaving the caucus more conservative overall. Because the number of swingable Republicans is smaller, each one is more powerful. (They must already feel the difference: Last week, Obama welcomed all three to the Oval Office for one-on-one chats.)

Best of all for the gang, there’s little consequence for breaking ranks. Republicans won’t punish the three defectors for the same reason Obama didn’t punish Joe Lieberman when he strayed during the 2008 campaign. They need them. Centrists are useful for squeezing compromises out of the majority—the gang persuaded Senate Democrats to cut spending on school nutrition, energy-efficient federal buildings, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The closer the Dems are to reaching 60, the more willing they are to compromise. And if Republicans ever lost both their senators from Maine, they’d be in even worse shape.

Sure, the vote might hurt the Gang of Three among conservative Republicans. But it’s not as if they had much support there anyway. “These Republicans have never been known as part of the core of the party,” says GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, referring to Snowe and company. “If they have Blue Dog Democrats, we have Red Cat Republicans. These are the Red Cat Republicans.” Nor does Grover Norquist smile on their fiscal apostasy.

Still, any beating their image may take among hard-core Republicans is outweighed by popular opinion. A Gallup poll released Monday says that 67 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the bill, as opposed to 31 percent who favor the work of Republicans. Whatever slip-ups the new administration has made, the watchword is still bipartisanship. Even Republicans who oppose the stimulus say they want bipartisan solutions. By actually sitting down, hashing out a compromise, and voting on it, the Gang of Three can claim that mantle.

There’s a decent chance the Gang of Three will expand. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio favors a stimulus but opposes the Democrats’ approach. Other moderate members of the GOP, in both chambers, may get onboard when the House, Senate, and White House work out compromise legislation later this week. But whatever happens, Collins, Snowe, and Specter have staked out their turf. They’re the go-to gang.