AUGUSTA, Maine — In a country where political moderates appear to be a dying breed, State House centrists are joining together to bridge the differences between Republicans and Democrats on partisan issues but jump in as a tipping force on others when necessary.
The Moderate Caucus has at least 45 members from both parties and has held several meetings in the wake of Republicans’ stunning and historic takeover of the House, Senate and governor’s office.
So far, it is playing a low-key role. But representatives and senators in the group are aware of its potential power, especially in the House, where the GOP’s 77-72 majority over Democrats is too thin to guarantee a win on every issue. The House also has one unenrolled member and one vacancy.
The GOP has a more comfortable cushion in the Senate, which has 20 Republicans, 14 Democrats, and 1 unenrolled member. But there’s still no blanket guarantee that the Republican line will pre vail in all issues, especially those in which even a few senators are inclined to stray from party lines.
A Moderate Caucus organizer, Republican Rep. Les Fossel of Alna, said the group is not out to take a stand on every issue, but its impact could be significant when it does.
“The question becomes how and when we use that power,” said Fossel. “If it’s used wisely, it can benefit all the state, if not, it can cause problems.”
University of Maine political science Professor Mark Brewer sees the group an important force on certain issues like Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed environmental regulatory revisions, which have already received pushback from some quarters. Brewer also sees opportunities for them to exert their influence in education, transportation and social service issues.
“I think this kind of moderate grouping ends up becoming a key player in what will get through and what doesn’t,” said Brewer.
Fossel and a Democratic caucus member, Sen . Seth Goodall of Richmond, said the moderates have already tested their influence on one issue, the supplemental budget for fiscal 2011.
During committee deliberations, moderates asked that a couple of spending provisions be taken out, and succeeded before the package came up for votes and was signed by LePage.
Fossel and Goodall see a place for the Moderate Caucus in more substantive issues, such as LePage’s proposed budget for 2012-13 and the environmental regulatory revisions he’s advancing.
“I believe we have to find a middle ground on these issues,” said Goodall, adding that Mainers statewide are largely politically moderate, neither far left nor far right. “We want to make sure we have a voice at the table.”
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said that even when Democrats were in power, they had to adopt a moderate approach to governing if they wanted anything to pass. “The administration has to govern recognizing (LePage) was elected wi th 38 percent of the vote,” said Grant.