The hideous spectacle of the past few weeks, in which a faction of the Republican Party held the nation’s economy hostage, came to a quiet end Wednesday. As of this writing, it’s unclear whether the deal approved last night will lead only to another round of brinkmanship, or whether cooler heads will prevail in the months ahead. Hopefully, there are enough Republicans left who understand that what’s at stake isn’t Obamacare or the budget deficit, but the integrity of government, and of democratic procedures.
It’s not too early, however, to take note of those Republicans who have resisted the pressure of the Tea Party and sought instead to find a bipartisan solution. They include the two Republican senators from New England, Maine’s Susan Collins and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, who joined with Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to put forward a workable proposal in the Senate, and thus jolted the legislative process in a meaningful way. Their intervention may or may not prove to have been a decisive turn of events. But they have distinguished themselves by at least acknowledging that finding a way to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government is more important than scoring a partisan victory.
This willingness to compromise may be related to their status among the Senate’s 20 women members, who have a bipartisan caucus. Collins, Ayotte, Murkowski, and the only other Republican woman in the Senate, Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, are joined by 16 Democratic women. While there are passionate ideologues within that group, its mere existence underscores how common interests can be found even among serious policy differences.
The actions of Collins and Ayotte also show the usefulness of having some Republican office holders to represent the values of New England; the two are the only GOP members of either the House or Senate from this region. Geographic polarization is an unfortunate byproduct — and perhaps a cause — of today’s nearly constant political rancor. Collins and Ayotte are often caught between their constituents and the national conservative movement. Collins, who has been in the Senate since 1997, has long self-identified as a moderate and often bucks party leaders. Not so with Ayotte, who almost lost her 2010 Republican primary to perennial Granite State hard-liner Ovide Lamontagne.
In the Senate, Ayotte has been in the mainstream of the GOP — hawkish on foreign policy and often witheringly critical of President Obama. Her vote against the bare-bones Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks for gun buyers was a surrender to the National Rifle Association. But lately, she’s shown a more admirable independence, breaking with the extreme right on immigration reform and now on the budget impasse. Significantly, she seems to have the backing of most conservatives in New Hampshire, whose instinctive rejection of political artifice and manipulation may have trumped their skepticism about Obamacare and the federal deficit.
That’s important not only because of the role New Hampshire plays in presidential politics, but also because it might help to stave off a GOP challenge to Ayotte in the state’s 2016 senatorial primary. The threat of a hard-right challenger, fueled by outside groups such as the Club for Growth or various Koch brothers fronts, is what keeps far too many otherwise sane Republicans from bucking the Tea Party line.
No doubt, in the privacy of the women’s caucus, Alaska’s Murkowski was able to convey some useful advice. She actually lost a GOP primary to a Tea Party candidate backed by Sarah Palin, only to win the seat anyway as a Republican-leaning independent. Sometimes, voters actually appreciate reason and moderation.
US senators need to have a higher loyalty than to their party or even their political principles. Their core commitment must be to the best interests of the country. And it must be honored even under threat from the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers. Thankfully, New England’s two Republican senators seem to have their priorities in order.