Moderates Feel Outnumbered in Congress

virginia democratic sen mark warner talks about moderates saturday feb. 20, 2010

With conservatives and liberals locked in a standoff on many major issues, some Capitol Hill moderates say they feel outflanked and outnumbered, reports CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason.

When Mark Warner was elected to the Senate in 2008, he thought he'd be bringing just the right skill set.

"I came from a state where, as governor, I had a legislature that was two-to-one Republican, but we still found common ground and got stuff done," Warner said.

The Virginia Democrat considers himself a centrist and is used to building coalitions and compromise, but the terms "compromise" and "Capitol Hill" don't really go together so well these days.

"It's not what I expected," Warner said. "It's very frustrating."

Warner could have asked Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle what it's like to be a moderate in Congress. Castle has been in office for 18 years and is now running for the Senate. But he knows trying to cross the aisle can be like swimming in shark-infested waters.

"Almost all the major controversial pieces of legislation, when if you side with the other party, you're at risk in your own party in terms of primaries and party support or whatever it may be," Castle said.

On issue after issue in recent years, from health care to regulatory reform to energy, moderates from both parties have tried working together and gotten nowhere.

Warner was particularly insulted to race back to Washington early from his mother's funeral in January to vote for a debt reduction commission. It failed after seven Republicans who co-sponsored the bill voted against it.

"I thought, you know, is the game cooked?" Warner asked. "I mean, is the whole thing fixed?"

Sen. Evan Bayh says, basically, yes it is.

"Congress does not operate as it should," Bayh said Monday.

The moderate Democrat from Indiana is so fed up he said this week he'll quit Congress when his term ends after 2010.

"I think his statements were pretty condemning in terms of how things stand in the United States Senate and in Washington in general," Castle said.

It wasn't as always that way.

In 1983, Republican President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neal, previously political rivals, worked together to pass landmark social security legislation.

Moderates say Bayh's announcement may be exactly what's needed to restore that spirit of cooperation.

"I hope it sends a little bit of a shockwave through the whole place that, hey, if good folks are leaving, I hope the rest of us will step up a little more," Warner said.

Bipartisanship will be tested again when Congress faces a critical vote on a jobs bill Monday, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid backed away from a first version that had some bipartisan support. So far no Republican has signed on to vote for the revised bill.

  • Anthony Mason
    Anthony Mason

    CBS News senior business and economics correspondent; Co-host, "CBS This Morning: Saturday"