Senate Republicans Hold Policy Meeting
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images file
Sen. George Voinovich, R- Ohio, emerges from a swarm of reporters Tuesday asking if he'll back UN nominee John Bolton.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/11/2005 5:36:04 PM ET 2005-05-11T21:36:04

Even though it’s a conservative-dominated Senate, centrist Republicans, such as Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio and Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, are a hot commodity on Capitol Hill these days.

After keeping reporters and the White House guessing for weeks, Chafee announced Tuesday he’d back John Bolton, President Bush’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations in the scheduled vote Thursday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the nomination.

“I fight the administration on so many issues; this is one of those that I've been with them on — to appoint their team," Chafee told the Associated Press.

Three weeks ago, Voinovich wielded his clout by bringing the Bolton nomination to a halt. At the end of a Foreign Relations Committee hearing in which Democrats assailed Bolton, Voinovich suddenly said, "I don't feel comfortable voting today on Mr. John Bolton."

Praise from Ohio
Voinovich’s delay won him praise from Senate Democrats and back in his home state.

"What Sen. Voinovich did a few weeks ago was courageous and the right thing to do," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., told reporters Tuesday.

Voinovich “should be commended for occasionally differing with President Bush and GOP leaders in Congress,” said a Columbus Dispatch editorial. “Independent thinking should be — but is not — a prized commodity in highly partisan Washington.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Voinovich found himself surrounded by reporters pleading with him to reveal how he’ll vote Thursday on Bolton.

Not looking like a man who enjoyed being at the center of the swarm, yet quite willing to talk, the Republican wouldn’t tip his hand.

“The most important thing is to do what your heart tells you to do and what your brain tells you to do,” he told the horde.

When a reporter asked whether he felt greater freedom to “buck your party’s leaders” since he won re-election last November, Voinovich replied, “I don’t look at that as bucking the party. My people sent me down here to do what’s in the best interest of our nation and that’s what the president wants to do…. But if I should decide that I’m not going to go forward and support him (Bolton), I don’t consider that bucking the party. I think that’s doing what the people of Ohio wanted me to do: use my best judgment.”

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He added, “I don’t feel pressure from anyone.”

Maybe the more pertinent question is the converse: do Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist feel any pressure from the not-so-conservative contingent of Republican senators, a group that includes Voinovich, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Gordon Smith of Oregon?

Clout on the filibuster
The group could exert their biggest clout in next week’s vote on changing the Senate filibuster rule to allow up-or-down votes on judicial nominees.

With three Republicans — Snowe, Chafee, and John McCain of Arizona — already declared against Frist’s proposed rule change, he can afford to lose only two more. Voinovich has indicated he would vote for the rule change, if the two sides can’t agree on some other way to ensure up-or-down votes on judicial nominees.

Two recent examples of GOP centrists’ clout, or at least their notoriety:

  • Smith forced the Bush administration to reduce the size of its proposed cuts in the Medicaid program from $14 billion to $10 billion.
  • Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., warned that American politics is now “held captive, to a great extent, by the extremes in both parties. And they are driving an agenda that is not in the best interests of this country.” Hagel did not identify any “extremes” or extremists by name. He underscored the fact that his vote on the filibuster rule change was still not committed.

The GOP centrists get a lot of attention partly for the tautological reason that television bookers give them a lot of attention: Hagel has appeared on the Sunday political TV talk shows six times so far this year, as has McCain.

A leading conservative, Sen. Sam Brownback, R- Kan., has appeared only twice.

If one uses the vote scoring system of the American Conservative Union (ACU), the GOP centrists disappoint the conservatives many times, but some “moderates” in fact have fairly conservative voting records.

Snowe, for example has a 51 lifetime ACU rating (out of a perfect 100), Chafee gets a 41, while Voinovich garners a 79, and Hagel an 85.

Rating on scale of liberalism
Using the rating system devised by the non-partisan National Journal, (based on 63 key roll call votes in 2004) Chafee is the Senate’s most liberal Republican, more liberal than 52 percent of all his colleagues in both parties.

National Journal gave Snowe a 50.8 liberal rating, Voinovich a 42 and Hagel a 41.5.

Voinovich has tended to join the liberals on gun issues and gay rights. Last year, for instance, he voted for a measure that required handgun dealers to provide buyers with a locking device and for broadening the categories covered by the federal “hate crimes” statute to include felonies motivated by animosity toward the victim's sexual orientation.

The ACU opposed both the gun and “hate crime” measures.

Not-so-conservative Republicans enable the party to hold seats the GOP might otherwise lose. If there were no Voinovich in Ohio, no Chafee in Rhode Island and no similar GOP senators in other states, then there would no be Republican majority.

One mystery is why Democrats do not come up with more credible opponents to challenge Voinovich, Chafee and other centrist GOP senators.

Voinovich, for example, crushed Democrat Eric Fingerhut last November, winning with 64 percent of the vote. Voinovich raised $10 million, to Fingerhut’s $1 million.

Looking to next year’s elections, Chafee is the only one of the GOP centrists who seems in any jeopardy.

Even in heavily-Democratic Rhode Island, Democrats will not get the candidate that polls indicated would have been the most formidable adversary for Chafee, Rep. Jim Langevin.

Instead they’ll choose between former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse and Secretary of State Matt Brown.

Chafee out of step with Rhode Island?
But Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Phil Singer cites a Zogby poll that found that over 80 percent of Rhode Islanders oppose the Bolton nomination. Singer said that on Bolton, on Social Security, and on ending filibusters of judicial nominees, Chafee has loyally followed Bush and Frist.

“One of the biggest myths in Washington is that Lincoln Chafee is some kind of maverick,” Singer said. “The idea that he is some great Republican liberal standing up to the White House is a myth.”

Chafee voted with Senate liberals in opposing the Bush tax cuts and the partial-birth abortion ban. His record is in line with that of his father, the late John Chafee, who represented Rhode Island in the Senate from 1976 until his death in 1999.

But there’s been one change since the elder Chafee helped defeat conservative Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987.

Today, in a Senate with 11 fewer Democrats than in 1987, a Bork-type nominee to the high court might well win an up-or-down vote, even if Lincoln Chafee voted “no.”

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