Let's (Not) Make a Deal

"I love a 50-50 tie," Senator John Breaux of Louisiana told me recently. "This is the kind of thing you dream about being involved in. It's a mandate for getting things done." And, boy, does he want to get things done. Breaux has a reputation in the Senate as a consummate deal maker, a people person, a backslapper. He's a Democrat who more often than not agrees with Republicans on signature issues like Social Security and Medicare, so his penchant for compromising and deal making has many Democrats worried. According to the prevailing wisdom, Breaux looks perfectly poised to serve as George W. Bush's go-to man in the Senate. But there's something funny about Breaux's deals: They never quite seem to get made. And with President Bush and Senate Democrats on a collision course, Breaux's quest for deals may get harder still.

Some politicians come to compromise out of necessity; others just have it in their blood. Breaux is in the second group. No one doubts that Democratic Senator Zell Miller, for instance, is carrying water for George W. Bush so as to cover his right flank in his home state of Georgia. But Breaux has no such fears. He has become to Louisiana what Daniel Patrick Moynihan was to New York and Strom Thurmond is to South Carolina: a senator for life. Breaux hasn't faced a serious challenge in either of his Senate re-election campaigns. And unless he starts voting like that other senator for life, Ted Kennedy, there's little reason to believe he ever will.

Breaux's moderate-to-conservative politics and gusto for deal making are rooted in his political apprenticeship in the South of the 1970s and in the political culture of his home state. Louisiana politics may be colorful in the extreme, but it's not particularly partisan. To quote Breaux, it's "more of a personality thing than a party thing." As in neighboring Texas, committee chairmanships in the Louisiana state legislature are assigned irrespective of majority party. In early 1999, Louisiana's eight statewide-elected officials--seven Democrats and Republican Governor Mike Foster--went so far as to sign a so-called "nonaggression" pact in which they agreed neither to run against one another nor even to endorse opposing candidates in each other's races. Foster's Democratic challenger, Congressman William Jefferson, the only African American in Louisiana's congressional delegation, may not have stood much of a chance, anyway; but a pledge of nonsupport from every other constitutional officeholder in the state certainly didn't help. But then, Jefferson himself apparently isn't much of a partisan: When he was a state senator in 1979, he served as a floor leader for the then-Republican governor.

In other words, you don't have to dig too deeply into Louisiana's recent political history to realize that people there think very differently about party lines than people in the rest of the country do. And that's an attitude that Breaux has consistently shown in the Senate. As co-chair of the Breaux-Thomas Medicare reform commission, he proposed scrapping the program's current structure and instead giving seniors vouchers to purchase insurance on the private market. Though a number of Senate Democrats were open to introducing an element of competition into the Medicare system, the vast majority were opposed to the way Breaux sought to do it. The key issue was whether private providers of Medicare coverage would have to compete on the basis of a defined benefit package. Under Breaux's plan, they wouldn't. Without such a stipulation, insurers could target the relatively healthy, while the residual "public" Medicare system would get loaded up with the chronically ill. That, Medicare supporters argue, would lead to growing pressure on the program's solvency and an inevitable withering away of Medicare as we know it: defined and guaranteed coverage for all seniors.

Breaux's efforts lent a patina of bipartisanship to a proposal that had little Democratic support. And in the end, only two senators, Breaux and former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, voted in favor of the commission's recommendations. But the ins and outs of the Medicare reform debate are not nearly as clear-cut as those of the Social Security privatization debate. And the sheer complexity of the issues left a number of wavering Democrats genuinely uncertain as to just where they stood on Medicare. "There was a lot of ambivalence and confusion," says one liberal health coverage activist.

Yet even Breaux's expertise and cajoling weren't enough to overcome the resistance of his Democratic colleagues. And since last year, Democratic opposition has only hardened. Not only did momentum shift in the last Congress toward a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, but the results of the 2000 election affirmed the Democrats' belief that defending Medicare in its current form was both good policy and good politics. In the new Senate, Breaux lost three Democratic sympathizers: Bob Kerrey, Pat Moynihan, and Chuck Robb of Virginia. And most of the nine new Senate Democrats have pledged to oppose Breaux's plan.

This isn't the first time Breaux has been thwarted. In 1993 he worked with former Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee and the late Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island to fashion a more market-oriented health care reform plan as an alternative to the Clinton plan. The so-called Cooper-Breaux bill came to naught, and, on a smaller scale, Breaux's efforts in favor of Social Security privatization hit a similar dead end. He has repeatedly posted himself at the crossroads of partisan division in hopes of cutting the big legislative compromise. Yet again and again, the deal is left unmade. Over the same stretch of years, Senator Kennedy brokered the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill with Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and the Children's Health Insurance Program with Senator Orrin Hatch. Less ambitious legislation, to be sure. But the contrast gives a pretty clear sense of how successful each man is at actually getting results and a fairly good indication of what the future holds. Breaux--given his centrist position--should be a more viable bipartisan deal maker than Kennedy at the Senate's left edge. Curiously, this is not so.

At first, a Bush presidency held for Breaux the prospect of shifting the ideological center of gravity in Washington and bettering his own prospects of success. Breaux felt that Bush's election reduced his own need to compromise on the Medicare front. He returned to the Hill more eager than ever to move aggressively on other issues like prescription drugs and his own version of a health care bill of rights.

The fact that Bush took office in a weakened position seemed likely to increase Breaux's clout. When Breaux swooped into Austin to meet with the president-elect just days after Al Gore's concession, many Democrats saw red. But Breaux later told friends he warned Bush not to pursue bipartisanship on the cheap by pushing an all-out conservative agenda and pulling together his majorities with a few stray Democrats from marginal districts and Republican-leaning states. Despite his centrism, Breaux is not comfortable imagining himself as the 51st Republican vote for Bush's legislative agenda. (Breaux and his staff are actually quite defensive about any talk of him as a go-between or point man for Bush.) If he prides himself on his ability to do business with Bush, he is also jealous of his own privileged status within the Democratic caucus. If Breaux wanted to be a Republican, he could have switched parties long ago on much more favorable terms. He doesn't want to be cut off from his Democratic colleagues; he wants to unite them with his friends on the other side of the aisle. If Breaux is going to broker a deal, it's got to be one between two sides--not one, if he can help it, that leaves him isolated from the rest of his caucus. Breaux's ideal legislation would originate with the more centrist half of each 50-member caucus and then grow out from there. But at a minimum, he'd want to bring along a dozen or so of his Democratic colleagues.

The issue therefore isn't so much Bush and Breaux as it is Breaux and his potential audience in the Democratic caucus--centrists like Max Baucus, Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, Joseph Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, and Zell Miller. But on almost everything but education, Bush is pursuing an undiluted conservative agenda--which constrains Breaux's centrist broker role. Bush's stance unifies Democrats in opposition and polarizes the Senate along partisan lines. Under Bill Clinton, Breaux repeatedly set himself up as the matchmaker, only to be left waiting at the altar. He clearly relished the idea of a diminished President Bush presiding over an evenly divided Congress. Bush would likely steer toward the middle and be in need of centrist Democrats who could help him build coalitions from the middle out. But with Bush taking a very different approach, Breaux may not be able to deliver enough Democrats to bridge the gap.

During the Clinton era, Breaux was able to play the cross-party game and also secure his position in the Senate leadership by freelancing on certain high-profile issues but being there as a clutch vote when the leadership needed him. Even then, the big deals eluded him. Now that Democrats face an aggressive Republican president and feel their backs against the wall, such a balancing act will be much more difficult.

Democratic Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota also is something of a Medicare policy aficionado, but he's no fan of the Breaux-Thomas plan. It's no coincidence that this year he's put himself back on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare policy. He and his colleagues may be far less indulgent than they have been in the past if Breaux tries to play deal maker on some of President Bush's key issues. "If he tries to get in on the patients' bill of rights, there's going to be problems," says one Senate staffer. "Daschle's not going to put up with it."

Breaux is a deal maker and compromiser by inclination and heritage. But with his increasingly ideological commitment to privatized social insurance, he's found no coalitions to build. If the new president were inclined to tack to the center or if Senate Democrats felt political pressure to compromise on privatizing social insurance, Breaux's chances might be better. But neither is the case. Like many in Washington, Breaux is convinced that the current partisan equilibrium is a recipe for compromise and conciliation. But it's more likely a prescription for deadlock and confrontation. Democrats intent on protecting Social Security and Medicare in their current form will keep an eye on Breaux. But the results of his efforts in the 107th Congress will probably be like those over the past decade: much effort, few results. ¤