WASHINGTON -- Two moderate senators have been in talks for several months with a handful of Republicans on ways to improve the functioning of the Senate, according to several sources familiar with the talks. The informal discussions don't rise to the level of what's often referred to as a "gang" in the Senate, but rather have been in an exploratory phase.
Along with Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, the talks have been led by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from the red state of North Dakota.
The group is separate from the "common sense caucus," which was started after the government shutdown last year. That caucus has included, at various junctures, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), who will be out of office this January given his landslide loss on Tuesday, with Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).
Whether conservative Democrats can find a way forward within the Senate may determine whether Manchin even stays in the upper chamber. The former West Virginia governor is so frustrated by the Senate's inability to function that he said he would consider bolting for another office if the situation doesn't improve.
"If I think it is futile and we are going down the same path we have been going down for four years, then I would have to look at my options," he told The Huffington Post, when asked if he would make another run for governor of his home state in 2016.
Manchin isn't up for re-election as a senator until 2018. If he left to become governor, he would likely be replaced by a Republican, undermining Democrats' ability to retake the chamber.
Even before Tuesday's election, Manchin had made his disgust with the Senate no secret. Former governors throughout history have found the upper chamber a difficult place to work. As the states' chief executives, they made decisions and acted upon them; as senators, they often have difficulty passing even popular legislation. Indeed, Manchin started another caucus within the Senate composed of lawmakers who used to be governors.
"I felt worthless. I felt like it was a useless time," Manchin said of his tenure in the Senate up to this point. He said he doesn't necessarily expect to start passing laws en masse next year, certainly not with different parties controlling the White House and Congress. Those areas where there may be commonality, he offered, are tax reform and energy production.
But his baseline for improvement is seeing more matters come up for a vote. Manchin blamed the loss of the Democratic majority, in part, on the decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to gum up the amendment process and limit the number of controversial votes that vulnerable members had to take.
"I told Harry it is easier for me to go home and explain what I voted for and against, and if I made a mistake, then I can go back and fix it," said Manchin. "I can’t explain why we don’t vote on or do anything."
The hope among the Heitkamp-King group is to encourage more dealmaking, on the theory that Democrats have been punished for not cooperating more with Republicans. A Democratic Senate aide said that two to three months ago, several moderate Democrats, frustrated that some of their own proposals weren't getting a vote, went to Reid to ask him to open up the amendment process. The day after the election, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) was also advocating internally for more bipartisan dealmaking -- even though it was Democratic votes in Northern Virginia that saved his close re-election, while Republicans overwhelmingly voted against him.
Democratic leadership aides have pushed back on the suggestion that Reid alone has stood in the way of bipartisan legislation becoming law or that he has been flatly opposed to allowing any amendments. They noted that Sens. Alexander and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) engaged in talks about improving the amendment process at the beginning of 2014, deciding ultimately to collaborate on smaller, less controversial bills for a start. Several major bills have also had amendments, including those on the unemployment insurance bill, comprehensive immigration reform, the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act and the Water Resources Development Act.
"When we took up Senator [Jeanne] Shaheen’s energy efficiency bill, we offered the Republicans a vote on the Keystone pipeline, but they turned it down," said one Democratic leadership aide, referring to the New Hampshire Democrat.
Indeed, sometimes the man standing in the way of passage has been the incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He did all he could, for instance, to block a transportation spending bill pushed by Collins last year.
Asked if she knew what motivated McConnell at the time, Collins said, "I can’t speculate on why. All I can tell you is he has never worked harder against a member of his own party than he did against me today."