WASHINGTON — The departure of Olympia Snowe and other like-minded moderates from the U.S. Senate next year could further elevate Republican Sen. Susan Collins as a swing vote, despite a larger Democratic majority, say some political observers.

Collins, meanwhile, said she is optimistic that some of the new and returning senators will prove wrong the predictions of a “disappearing center.”

“My hope is, now that the elections are behind us, that we will see a more constructive and bipartisan approach,” Collins said.

Despite an aggressive Republican campaign to retake the Senate, Democrats expanded their caucus from 53 to 55 members, after accounting for Maine Sen.-elect Angus King, who has affiliated himself with the Democrats.

The policy often blamed for helping to foster partisan gridlock — the Senate filibuster — in many ways boosts the potential influence of moderates as the majority party scrambles to reach 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

During a close vote, “you’re always asking who are they going to reach out to, who are those five Republicans?” said Ross Baker, a former senior advisor to both Republican and Democratic senators who teaches political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “And, of course, at the top of everybody’s list is Susan Collins.”

Both of Maine’s Republican senators consistently rank among the more bipartisan senators in ratings compiled by media outlets.

Earlier this year, Collins and Snowe ranked first and third, respectively, in separate measures of bipartisanship published by Congressional Quarterly and Bloomberg Government. Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts was No. 2 in both rankings, according to reports.

The Senate has been paralyzed by a historic number of filibusters this session — sometimes aided by Snowe, Collins and Brown siding with their Republican colleagues.

But Collins and Snowe broke ranks from time to time, endorsing President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package and casting key votes to end the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members.

Snowe’s retirement and Brown’s defeat at the hands of a decidedly liberal opponent means the moderate Republican caucus will shrink next year.

“In theory, she is in a position of power because the Democrats always need 60 votes to get anything done,” said Sarah Binder, a scholar of congressional process and partisanship at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution.

Collins said she doesn’t expect to be a lonely moderate voice.

“The Democrats clearly gained two seats in the Senate, but they did so by running pretty conservative Democrats in states that traditionally vote Republican, so I see an expanded center,” Collins said. “My hope is, they will be willing to work with the moderates on the Republican side and, together, we can form a cohesive group that can push through some solutions” rather than partisan positions.

With so many veteran senators retiring after this year, Collins will climb from 36th to 27th on the seniority ladder of the 100-member Senate. Among Republicans, Collins will be the ninth-highest member and the most senior Republican woman.

Seniority affects a senator’s clout and his or her ability to land positions on powerful committees, where most legislative work occurs.

Collins will lose her title as ranking minority member — something close to co-chair — on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because of Republican leadership term limits. But Collins is in line to become the ranking member on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which reviews such programs as Medicare.

She also hopes to continue serving on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for budget and spending decisions, including which shipyards receive Navy contracts.

“That’s a committee where I am able to do a lot of good in the state of Maine,” Collins said.

As for the overall tone of Congress, leaders in both parties are expressing a willingness to compromise, beginning with negotiating an agreement to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff” by year’s end.

Other observers say while it’s too early to tell, the 2012 elections appear to have, as Baker put it, “lowered the temperature of polarization a bit.”

While her retirement due to hyper-partisanship has drawn the most attention nationally, Snowe is not the only moderate senator to opt out or be forced out of office in 2012.

The list of those who won’t return next year includes Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Democrat-turned-independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Republicans Dick Lugar of Indiana and Brown of Massachusetts.

Some departing senators were replaced by professed centrists while others — including Brown — will be replaced by senators believed to lean much more toward one side.

Maine’s Sen.-elect Angus King has insisted that he will remain independent even as he caucuses with the Democrats.

“In some ways, I think the picture remained the same, but there is not a lot of heft left in the political center,” said Binder, with the Brookings Institution.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who now heads a centrist organization known as the Republican Main Street Partnership, said Congress “probably got a little more polarized than it was before.”

“It wasn’t a titanic shift, but it continues the gradual shift that we have seen,” said Davis.

Snowe and Collins represent two of the Republican Main Street Partnership’s four members from the Senate.

The steady shift away from the center and toward the extremes is clearly shown in an annual rating of Congress’ political leanings compiled by the National Journal.

In 1982, 58 of the Senate’s 100 members fell somewhere in the middle of the National Journal’s rankings of the most liberal and conservative lawmakers.

Nearly 30 years later, the difference was black and white – more accurately, dark blue and deep red. In 2011, every Democrat was more liberal than every Republican in the Senate, and vice versa.

That’s not to say there aren’t moderates left in the House and Senate who break with their parties. But the ratings — and similar rankings compiled by other groups — suggest that those moderates who remain spend less time in the “center aisle” than their similarly labeled predecessors.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
kmiller@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC