Friday, May 13, 2005

Republican Moderates in Senate Sense Intensifying Pressures

The New York Times
May 13, 2005
Republican Moderates in Senate Sense Intensifying Pressures

WASHINGTON, May 12 - The unusual pact that permitted the nomination of John R. Bolton to go forward on Thursday without the support of a crucial Republican senator has exposed, in a very raw and public way, the extreme pressures facing Republican moderates in a Senate that is increasingly dominated by conservatives.

President Bush called the dissenting Republican, Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio, on Wednesday, the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Mr. Voinovich serves, was to take up the nomination, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said.

Karl Rove, the president's powerful political adviser, and Andrew H. Card Jr., the chief of staff, also called to chat with Mr. Voinovich in recent weeks, Mr. McClellan said.

And Mr. Voinovich, who has steadfastly refused to answer questions about any discussions with the White House, is hardly the only Republican who is feeling the squeeze these days.

From the fight over Mr. Bolton to the looming blowup over the president's judicial nominees to the debate over the proposal to overhaul Social Security, Republican moderates are caught in the middle as never before. As they look to the near future, to a possible vacancy on the Supreme Court, they realize that the pressures will only intensify.

"Bolton is a perfect example of putting the moderates in an impossible situation," said Senator Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and who agonized publicly over Mr. Bolton for weeks. "It's a no-win. Either we don't support the president or we vote for a very unpopular pick to represent us at the United Nations."

The elections in November put seven new Republicans, nearly all conservatives, in the Senate, increasing the party's majority to 55. As moderate Senate Republicans look out around the country, they are comforted by the ranks of moderate governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, George E. Pataki in New York and Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

But here in the Capitol, their numbers are so few, said Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, that they quit having their weekly lunches about a year ago.

"Susan and I were there alone for so much of the time," Mr. Specter he said, referring to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, "we worked through all of our conversation and decided to disband."

As Mr. Voinovich's refusal to support Mr. Bolton's nomination demonstrates, "the vanishing center"-as another centrist Republican, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, often says - can still play a powerful role. There are just four core centrists in the Senate, Mr. Chafee, Ms. Collins, Ms. Snowe and Mr. Specter. They are joined from time to time by mavericks like Senators John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mr. Voinovich.

The pressure from the White House and Republican leadership can at times be unrelenting. So much so that some have learned how to pre-empt it.

Mr. Chafee told reporters repeatedly that he was inclined to support Mr. Bolton, a move that his spokesman, Steven Hourahan, said was intended to send a clear signal to the White House about where Mr. Chafee stood.

As a result, Mr. Hourahan said, the senator received just one call from a high-level official. Mr. Card telephoned on the eve of what was supposed to be a committee vote on the nomination. The vote was delayed by Mr. Voinovich, who insisted on having more time to investigate accusations about Mr. Bolton's temperament and management style.

The senator has met administration officials, as well as Mr. Bolton, and has visited with Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader.

But he was careful not to take the White House and the leadership by surprise. In the days leading up to the vote, he informed Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and Dr. Frist of his decision. "Senator Voinovich arrived at his decision," said Eric Ueland, Dr. Frist's chief of staff, "and we arrived at the process for moving the nomination to the full Senate."

The next squeeze, for the moderates, will be the explosive question of whether Republican leaders should change Senate rules to bar Democrats from using the filibuster, a two-century-old parliamentary tactic, to block the judicial nominees. Dr. Frist is advocating the change, and a confrontation is widely expected next week. Mr. . McCain and Mr. Chafee have said they will oppose it, and Ms. Snowe has indicated strongly that she will do so, too.

Mr. Specter is in a particularly tight spot. He is trying to remain neutral, but as Judiciary Committee chairman is expected to advocate for the nominees. John Breaux, a centrist Democrat who was in the Senate until last year, said defying party leaders could be especially risky for a committee chairman.

"They can put an awful lot of pressure on you," he said of the leaders. "They say, 'Look, you're a chairman because your party is in control, and you've got to be with the party.' So when you break with them, you have to be fast on foot to explain it."

Ms. Collins, chairwoman of the domestic security committee, is also taking that risk. Along with Ms. Snowe, she has expressed reservations about the rules change, as well as the Social Security plan. Last week, the two returned to Maine to find themselves the targets of an advertising campaign on the judicial nominees, a campaign that had the endorsement of Dr. Frist.

By this week, Ms. Collins seemed a bit worn down by that debate. "It seems like it's issue after issue this year," she said, adding that she often envies "those senators for whom everything is black and white."

Ms. Snowe, meanwhile, had a message for fellow Republicans: "Frankly," she said, "the election of the president drew from Americans who describe themselves as moderates, which is about 45 percent of Americans today. That's something we overlook at our own peril."

Richard W. Stevenson contributed reporting for this article.