- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

Senate Republicans say they are struggling to keep some of their party's "weak sisters" from undermining President Bush's legislative agenda.
Conservatives identify the usual lineup of suspects who have made life difficult for the Senate Republican leadership since the party captured the upper chamber in the 1994 elections.
Now these "RINOs" Republicans in Name Only, as party conservatives deem them are causing similar troubles for Mr. Bush.
The party's liberal and centrist senators, most of them from New England, have joined maverick Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and his Democratic allies to push a complicated bill on campaign finance reform to the top of the Senate agenda.
Conservatives say the McCain coalition puts the new Republican president in a difficult political position, threatening to derail Mr. Bush's own tax-cutting agenda and abort his White House honeymoon.
"The public doesn't care about campaign financing," one Republican senator says. "Do some of our fellow Republicans care that they are undercutting Bush's ability to do the things that people care about?
"Does anyone care that forcing the president to veto an irresponsible bill will affect his ability to carry out a real agenda?" adds the senator, who, like all but two colleagues interviewed by The Washington Times, agreed to comment only if his name were not used.
The Republican "weak sisters" lineup includes Sens. James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln R. Chaffee of Rhode Island whom conservative colleagues describe as the most difficult to deal with as well as Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine.
"Chaffee and Jeffords are the two we are most concerned about on Bush's tax-relief bill," a Senate Republican leader says privately. "We need to really focus efforts on bringing them over… . We're not completely sure of Snowe or Collins on the tax bill."
Mr. Bush traveled to Maine on Friday to push his tax-cut agenda, seeking to pressure Mrs. Snowe and Mrs. Collins to support him on the legislation.
But the "weak sisters" club has expanded beyond its Rockefeller Republican base in the Northeast. Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, is among those who have bucked the party's Senate leadership by at first supporting the McCain-Feingold bill banning unrestricted "soft money" contributions to political parties. Now, however, he leans toward a compromise bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, to put a cap on soft money contributions to party organizations at $60,000 per year.
Mr. Voinovich also reversed his initial opposition to Mr. Bush's sweeping tax-cut plan. Yet his wavering on key issues like that of his Northeast Republican colleagues has drawn criticism from some conservatives.
"Would they feel more comfortable as Democrats than Republicans? Some of them would," an aide to a conservative Republican senator says. "They're the last elements of Rockefeller Republicanism that [the late Sen. Barry] Goldwater thought he killed off but didn't."
This resurgence of Republican liberalism strikes many Senate veterans as disastrously ill-timed scarcely two months into the new administration, after Mr. Bush won the most bitterly disputed presidential election in more than a century, and with Republicans controlling the Senate only by virtue of Vice President Richard B. Cheney's tie-breaking vote.
A good start for Mr. Bush's legislative agenda may be the only thing that can keep Republicans from losing their Senate majority in the 2002 midterm elections. But local political factors push the party's Northeastern senators toward echoing Democratic arguments that Mr. Bush's tax plan "costs" too much and "doesn't do enough to help low- and middle-income people," one Republican Senate aide says.
"Opposing or appearing to oppose Bush and the Republican leadership on taxes, campaign finance regulation and other measures is an easy way for members to appear independent," the aide says. "For Northeast Republicans, sometimes not toeing the party line helps them get re-elected. They look like they're standing on principle."
"It shouldn't surprise us that New England Republicans go through these self-flagellations, because it's important for them periodically to remind people they are moderates," says conservative strategist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an advocacy group devoted to tax relief. "It's part of the dance they have to do. It's not treasonous. It's understandable."
Texas Sen. Phil Gramm says the news media influences some of his Republican colleagues.
"Who makes heroes around here?" Mr. Gramm says. "Who names outstanding legislators? Who proclaims who the new leaders of Congress are? Who affixes the wings on your shoulders?"
His answer to all: The media.
A media and cocktail-circuit axis explains the behavior of Republican liberals and mavericks, Mr. Norquist says.
"They want the New York Times to write that they are moderate and reasonable people who are 'troubled' no, better, 'concerned' about this tax bill, even though they're not necessarily against it," Mr. Norquist says. "It's the sign of being sophisticated if you're from the Northeast."
If all politics is local, then "local" for some senators means inside the Beltway, Mr. Norquist says: "These Northeast Republicans are responding to what's said on the Washington cocktail circuit rather than to their constituencies."
Mr. Norquist adds, "No voters in Maine are going to punish you for voting for a tax cut, but for acceptance in the Northeast establishment, it's important that you pronounce yourself 'reasonable' as the New York Times editorial page defines it."
He also blames the influence of the "Washington cocktail circuit" for Mr. McCain's maverick ways.
"Who is the one guy not in the Northeast who gets invited to these parties? John McCain," Mr. Norquist says. "The difference is that Republicans from places like Oklahoma don't get invited to those cocktail parties."


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