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Senator's Reform Efforts Sometimes Get Results

By Helen Dewar and Eric Pianin, Washington Post,
Wednesday, August 9, 2000 ; A01

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) opened his recent drive to force secretive political groups to start disclosing their finances, it sounded familiar to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). There was a good reason: It started out as Lieberman's bill.

But there appeared to be no hard feelings. Lieberman co-sponsored McCain's measure, McCain gave Lieberman credit for the idea and, together, they steered the proposal--the first successful campaign reform initiative in two decades--through all the legislative traps and onto the statute books.

Temperamentally, Lieberman, the mild-mannered centrist and consensus-seeker who was formally tapped by Vice President Gore yesterday to be his running mate, could not be more different from the fist-pumping crusader who tried and failed to win the GOP presidential nomination.

But Lieberman shares with McCain an interest in reform that transcends their mutual support for tightening campaign finance laws, with Lieberman having demonstrated an especially keen interest in tackling education programs. In the process, both have taken on some of their own party's major constituencies and special interests, which for Lieberman include teachers unions, trial lawyers and the entertainment industry.

Lieberman has carved out a distinct role for himself in the Senate. He has no major laws named after him and has often been thwarted by partisan pressures and by overreaching for a consensus that has yet to develop. Instead, he has become a force of his own, taking on the role of conscience of the Senate, with a passionate interest in issues involving morals and cultural values.

But he may be less of a maverick than he sometimes appears. Despite his call for overhauling campaign finances, he's been an aggressive participant in the current system. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he has collected $3.4 million for his reelection campaign and leads the Senate in contributions from insurance interests--not surprising, given the concentration of such companies in his home state.

Lieberman also has adhered to Democratic orthodoxy on most key issues, including abortion, gun control, environmental protection, gay rights and raising the minimum wage. He once indicated interest in partial privatization of Social Security--a major item in George W. Bush's agenda--but has since decided it would not work, aides said.

When he has dissented, it has invariably been to take a position to the right of his party. He has voted with Republicans on issues ranging from cutting capital gains taxes, which many Democrats deride as a sop to the rich, to supporting limits on damages in civil liability lawsuits, which are the lifeblood of many Democratic-leaning trial lawyers.

Congressional Quarterly, an independent publication, found he voted with his party 87 percent of the time last year on issues that involved partisan divisions. He voted with President Clinton 89 percent of the time.

With his even-tempered and affable manner, Lieberman is widely liked on both sides of the aisle, and few are willing to challenge him directly on issues involving morality and cultural values. But many have also found him easy to ignore, especially when, as some have said privately, he gets a little sanctimonious or politically self-serving.

"The main thing is he works well with everyone--not only the traditional Democratic base but with Republicans as well," said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), another centrist who has often worked with Lieberman on issues such as health care and education.

Democratic liberals also speak well of him. "We don't always agree on issues but I believe in him," said Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), one of the most liberal members of the Senate.

One of the areas in which Lieberman has challenged his party--and has yet to see his ideas written into law--is education. He was an early advocate of charter schools and vouchers, arguing almost a decade ago that parents and students should be given more choice and alternatives to public schools. He joined forces with the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and other Republicans to back a measure to offer parents a tax-sheltered savings account to help defray school costs, in public and private schools.

This year he and a handful of other centrist Democrats pressed for a major restructuring of the federal education law that incorporated his "Three Rs"--dramatically consolidating education programs, boosting funding especially for the poorest school districts and holding educators and administrators accountable for results. Many of his ideas have been drawn from or refined by the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist think tank he now chairs.

He has strongly supported Clinton-Gore administration initiatives for hiring 100,000 additional teachers nationally and building new schools. But since early in his Senate career, Lieberman has locked horns with the National Education Association and other teachers groups by promoting vouchers and other proposals that they argue would divert resources from public schools.

Lieberman showed a pragmatic side this year in negotiating with his party over education policy. To avoid confrontation with liberals, Lieberman dropped his insistence on vouchers.

In return, Democrats included parts of Lieberman's "Three Rs" reforms in their alternative, including a system that pegs program funding to school system performance standards and a commitment to try to better target Title I funding for the disadvantaged.

But liberal Democrats rejected other pieces of the Lieberman plan, particularly proposals for earmarking 75 percent of Title I funds for the poorest school districts and for consolidating dozens of programs into five performance-based programs. Only 13 of the 45 Senate Democrats supported all of Lieberman's proposals in an amendment during the floor debate.

Another example of Lieberman's ability to make waves was his crusade, with conservative Republicans, against violence and sex on television and in lyrics and video games.

While Clinton has wooed Hollywood for years, Lieberman has championed legislation that has riled Hollywood's elite, including the 1996 law requiring that television sets include the V-chip technology that lets parents filter what their children watch. He also supports a proposal that would require the industry to adopt a uniform rating system for films, music recordings and video games.

"I have certainly taken issue with some of the things he has said," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "But in the world of politics . . . there's room for disagreement. And you can debate with a man like Joe Lieberman because he doesn't have a hidden agenda. He doesn't come at you with the mask of Machiavelli."

On foreign policy, Lieberman was one of only 10 Democrats to support military action against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War and advocated stronger action than the administration was willing to take against Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo.

He has been a stronger supporter of free trade than many in his party. He has also pushed, in opposition to many Democrats, for speedy action to create a national missile defense system, although he voted with them recently to require more tests before the go-ahead is given.

He has supported civil rights, gay rights and hate-crimes legislation, but has been critical of granting hiring and other preferences to minority groups. He voted for legislation to overhaul the welfare system, which passed over opposition from some party liberals.

Lieberman has generally lined up with fiscal conservatives in his party and defied his party leadership to support a capital gains tax cut in 1989. But he opposed the balanced-budget constitutional amendment and voted against the big Republican tax cut last year. Although some Democratic moderates voted recently for GOP bills to reduce taxes for married couples and eliminate the federal tax on estates, Lieberman did not do so.

It says something about Lieberman's nearly 12 years on Capitol Hill that he is probably less known for his legislative work than for the speech he gave in late 1998 rebuking Clinton for his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. While it was seen at the time as provocative, many Democrats now say it may have put out a fire before it started.

It expressed most senators' disgust with Clinton's behavior, they say, and enabled them to turn their attention to legal and constitutional questions, which were eventually--with Lieberman's support--decided in Clinton's favor. "He articulated for many in the [Democratic] caucus the feelings that many had but were not prepared to express publicly," said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). After the speech, the emotion "dissipated," Daschle added.


Staff researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.

2000 The Washington Post Company


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