Fred Thompson set a mark for obstinateness during his eight years in the Senate, ending up the lone dissenter on more votes on bills and amendments than any other Republican during that time.
As Mr. Thompson prepares to announce tomorrow that he will officially seek the Republican nomination for president and voters begin to take a closer look at him, his maverick streak and his voting record will be front and center.
Some votes are likely to draw scrutiny, particularly a series of votes in the 1990s against cracking down on illegal aliens. Those include a 1995 vote against limiting services other than emergency care and public education to illegal aliens — he was one of just six senators to oppose that proposal — and a 1996 vote against creating an employer verification system to help businesses filter out illegal aliens who apply for jobs.
A Washington Times review of his record also shows that he was willing to take a stand against his party time and again to protect plaintiffs’ rights to sue teachers, companies that failed to solve the Y2K computer glitch and company executives even if they were unaware of fraud.
Mr. Thompson’s legislative record has been attacked as thin because in his eight years in office, he sponsored relatively few bills and was the driving force behind few legislative accomplishments. But his votes show a man with an aversion to federal intrusion on state prerogatives and with a willingness to take quixotic stands on principle, when other Republicans chose to go along to get along.
At the same time, Mr. Thompson has already recanted some of his earlier positions, such as his steadfast support for campaign finance changes. But rival campaigns say there’s still plenty of room to attack.
“His legislative accomplishments are few and far between,” an operative from a rival Republican campaign said.
“More problematic is the fact that the few issues he did champion are legislative abominations for conservatives,” the operative said, pointing to his support for campaign finance laws and his defense of lawsuits. “His record is one you’d expect from a squishy Republican with a penchant for protecting trial lawyers who love lawsuits.”
Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for Mr. Thompson, said that attack doesn’t do justice to his record of staking out conservative positions even when a majority of Republicans voted the other way.
“Fred Thompson is the most consistent conservative running for president today, with a solid pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-border security record. We look forward to matching his conservative credentials to any of the candidates running,” she said.
Among the votes sure to be popular among conservatives are a 1997 vote to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and a 1999 vote against requiring guns to be sold with gun locks. Another frequent Thompson target was a subsidy to promote U.S. agricultural products overseas, which he regularly voted to slash.
But on immigration, Mr. Thompson had several votes where he bucked the pack — and seemed to favor illegal aliens.
The most stark example was his 1995 vote on the welfare overhaul, when he voted to preserve illegal aliens’ ability to receive federal benefits. He was one of just six senators to vote that way, joining four other Republicans and one Democrat.
And in 1996, as Congress considered a crackdown on illegal aliens, Mr. Thompson voted against setting up a system so employers could verify the legal status of their workers.
An adviser to the campaign on immigration matters, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Thompson had concerns about how broadly the public-benefits provision was drawn. As for the employer verification system, the adviser said Mr. Thompson joined a majority of Republicans in the chamber in opposing it, with many of them thinking the new system would lead to a national ID card.
Since then, the verification system has proved to be successful and has not led to a national ID, and Mr. Thompson’s immigration plans would actually expand the system, which the Bush administration recently renamed E-Verify and announced its own plans to bolster.
The campaign adviser also said Mr. Thompson had several votes proving that he is strong on immigration, including voting in the Judiciary Committee to reduce chain migration and voting to eliminate the diversity visa lottery.
Oftentimes, he was the lone senator trying to stop legislation even in the face of his own party, which controlled the Senate for more than six of Mr. Thompson’s eight years in office.
More than half of the senators who served during that time never ended up on the losing side of an all-against-one vote, but Mr. Thompson did it five times, losing two by 99-1, two by 98-1 and one by 96-1.
He tied with former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, North Carolina Republican, for the most times on the bottom of an otherwise-unanimous vote, but several of Mr. Faircloth’s hold-out votes came on President Clinton’s nominees, while all of Mr. Thompson’s solo stands came on bills and amendments.
Mr. Thompson’s voting record puts him in the company of well-known mavericks such as former Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold and West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, all Democrats, and fellow presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
Of Mr. Thompson’s five solo votes, two were against exempting or limiting liability of teachers or other volunteers, while the other three came against “Sense of the Senate” measures on matters such as encouraging zero-tolerance anti-drug policies in schools.
“This reflects his strong convictions about federalism and that Congress shouldn’t be federalizing issues that ought to be a matter of state law,” Ms. Hanretty said. “It’s a fundamental principle with him, and it’s a theme I think we’re going to hear a lot about throughout the campaign.”
Mr. Thompson’s record does reveal a staunch defender of states’ rights, repeatedly voting against federal intrusions on issues large and small — unless that competed with his lawyerly instincts. He voted against an amendment that would have let states set their own standards for medical malpractice litigation.
His legal priorities even caused him to be one of three Republicans to support Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards in opposing liability limits for companies that took steps to combat the Y2K computer bug in the run-up to New Year’s Day in 2000.
Ms. Hanretty, though, said Mr. Thompson was actually trying to protect small businesses and consumers who may have bought computers certified as Y2K-compliant but who, under the law, would have had no recourse if the computers failed anyway.
“Sure, he may have been one of three Republicans, but he was one of three Republicans who cast a deliberate vote to protect small businesses and consumers,” Ms. Hanretty said.
“He was not a senator who voted party line. He was a senator who voted on conviction, who studied the issues, and was very deliberate in his vote, regardless of whose name was at the top of the bill,” she said. “I think that’s exactly the sort of president voters are looking for right now.”