Bare-knuckles Alaska senator hulks over Washington state politics
- Wed, Jun. 28, 2006
Bare-knuckles Alaska senator hulks over Washington state politics
By Alicia Mundy
The Seattle Times
WASHINGTON - The most powerful U.S. senators run on a high-octane mix
of fear and IOUs - they cause the former and collect the latter.
For 38 years, few have been as fearsome or held as many chits as Ted
Stevens, the irascible Republican from Alaska.
But four days before Christmas, when he tried to cash in those IOUs
to approve oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,
Stevens found himself stymied by a freshman senator from a Democratic
state: Maria Cantwell. The result was a spectacular 12-minute
meltdown on the Senate floor.
Waving his hands, his voice rising in anger, Stevens admonished his
colleagues that a vote against ANWR drilling would impoverish
Hurricane Katrina victims, leave the elderly to freeze during the
winter and even aid terrorists.
He vowed to travel the country and tell voters about the harm their
senators inflicted by blocking the flow of Alaskan oil and the money
it would raise.
Then he turned his attention to Cantwell, who had led the
opposition: "I hope the senator from Washington likes my visits to
Washington state, because I'm gonna visit there often."
It was an embarrassing public defeat for someone who has directed
billions in taxpayer dollars to help other senators. And it was the
culmination of a rift between Stevens and Cantwell over energy and
However, the final sentence he muttered is more crucial to
understanding the depth of Stevens' anger. As he ended, he stared at
his colleagues and said, "The time I've spent with you, working on
your problems ..."
They owed him. Ultimately, he would collect those IOUs.
Stevens, the most senior Republican in the Senate, is the high priest
of bare-knuckle politics. For almost longer than Cantwell has been
alive, he has practiced that religion fervently in public, and more
fervidly behind closed doors.
He has used his seat on the Appropriations Committee and his perfect
knowledge of lawmaking's arcane details to reward supporters and
As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he oversees fisheries,
telecommunications, oil-tanker safety and other issues important to
the Northwest. He's also president pro tempore of the Senate, which
makes him third in line for the presidency.
Closer to home, his long history working with Washington's
congressional delegation has led some people to call him the state's
But now there's acrimony, with Stevens striking out against the state
to get at Cantwell and the two snapping at each other at public
He blames Cantwell.
"Cantwell really hasn't done much around here, so she needed
something to attack," Stevens said in an interview. "She and her
staff have been out to make me the enemy of Seattle."
He added, "We've got a bad apple in this basket."
Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks, both Democrats from
Washington, have learned to work with Stevens - often to the state's
Cantwell, at least in some cases, can't or won't.
Her staff says some of Stevens' moves are simply anti-Washington. In
recent years, he has worked to relocate Seattle-based government
ships to berths in Alaska, pushed to undo parts of the Endangered
Species Act and proposed to abolish limits on oil tankers.
Cantwell declined to be interviewed for this story.
But in a written statement, she said she has worked well with Stevens
on a number of issues, including fisheries and aerospace.
"First and foremost, though, I work for Washington state families and
what is best for those of us living in the Northwest, even if it
means he and I don't end up on the same side," her statement said.
After the ANWR loss, talk around Congress was about whether Alaska's
senior senator had reached too far, whether his power was diminished.
The months since then show it would be a big mistake to count him out.
Stevens feels he has thrown Cantwell a bone or two, but she's
Last year, he allowed her to convene a hearing in Washington state on
oil-tanker spills, under the auspices of his Commerce Committee.
That's not something normally bestowed on a junior senator from the
He says he also authorized her trip to Iraq last year.
"Cantwell didn't even come talk with me about the trip directly," he
As for ANWR, Stevens doesn't just think Cantwell is wrong in opposing
drilling. He says she's hypocritical.
"She says, `Let us decide what to do about issues in Washington
state,'" he snapped. But then Cantwell keeps trying to shove her anti-
ANWR view down Alaskan throats, Stevens says.
He also was furious at Cantwell's attempts to make energy executives,
his longtime friends, be sworn in under oath when they testified
about gas prices before his committee last November.
Cantwell, a member of the Commerce Committee, lost that battle but
won the publicity war. The video clip of Stevens repeatedly cutting
her off during the hearing became one of the year's biggest hits on
comedian Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."
In March, Stevens waded into Cantwell's re-election campaign against
Republican challenger Mike McGavick.
Stevens announced the withdrawal of his controversial bill that would
allow more oil tankers in the Puget Sound. Then, in an artfully
staged press briefing, his eyes twinkling, Stevens credited McGavick
for convincing him to drop the legislation and lauded the challenger
for his gentility.
McGavick says he appreciates the support, which included a recent
fundraiser for him hosted by Stevens in Anchorage.
But every time Stevens endorses McGavick or resurrects ANWR, Cantwell
reminds voters that she's a fighter willing to take on a powerful
senator and his special-interest backers.
It has become almost too easy to make sport of Stevens' penchant for
drama and hyperbole.
In October, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tried to cut several projects
from the federal budget, including $223 million for the "bridge to
nowhere" that would link Ketchikan, Alaska, and its airport on
Gravina Island, population 50. Stevens threw what one newspaper
called "a hissy fit."
"I will resign from this body," he thundered from the Senate floor.
After one ANWR debate last year, Stevens told the Anchorage Daily
News: "I'm seriously depressed, unfortunately, clinically depressed."
He has been accused on his home turf of helping special interests,
including fishing-industry representatives, who hired his son as a
consultant. In a heated counterattack last year, Stevens threatened
to investigate the circulation numbers of the newspaper chain that
broke the story.
At 82, Stevens' creviced face is almost completely obscured by owlish
glasses, and back injuries have left him - at 5-foot-7 - 2 inches
shorter than he used to be.
Still, he towers above the rest of the Senate in ability to use and
abuse quorum calls, delays, debate and backroom deals.
He has made Alaska the No. 1 state in per-capita federal spending, at
$12,885 for every man, woman and child in 2004. Since 2001, his news
releases brag, he has earmarked more than $5 billion for Alaska
projects, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
He's been so successful directing federal money that Alaska's
governor says he may hire a public-relations firm to fix the image of
Alaska as a "greedy state."
And Stevens can play rough. Despite denials from his staff, he
retaliates - and doesn't mind waiting years to do so.
The enmity between Stevens and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is almost
mythic on the Hill. A former aide to Stevens recalls being trapped in
a Capitol elevator with the two men as they argued through four
During heated hearings on media-ownership concentration in 2003,
McCain did a slow, obvious double take when Stevens suggested letting
state utility regulators make the decisions on joint control of local
newspapers and TV stations.
When Stevens became chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee last
year, many assumed he would give McCain, the outgoing chairman, a pro
forma subcommittee post.
Stevens restructured the committee, leaving nothing for McCain to
"Ted is the master of Senate politics," said former Sen. John Breaux,
D-La. "Some people acquire power and never use it.
"But if you're in a position to use power, then shame on you if you
don't," he said. "Ted can do more with a wink and a nod than many do
in a decade in the Senate."
Thomas Mann, political guru at the Brookings Institution, recently
savaged Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as unique in his
lack of interest and understanding of the Senate.
But Stevens lives and breathes the chamber, Mann said in an interview.
"Stevens has built a long and successful career in the Senate by
taking full advantage of his seniority and his toughness to advance
his legislative interests," Mann said.
Stevens says that he was taught by a list of history-making
parliamentarians and power players.
"I've lived on the floor a hell of a lot," he said.
But as pork becomes a political pinata, Stevens has found himself a
target for Republicans as well as Democrats. Coburn's attack on the
bridge to nowhere rankled Stevens, but that was Coburn's strategy.
"I went to Coburn and said, `I can't understand this. You're taking
all the money from my state,'" Stevens recalled.
According to Stevens, Coburn replied: "I know you've won, but you've
really lost. From now on, you're the target."
But if Oklahoma finds itself needing a bridge or two, Stevens' chits
may count more than Coburn's snits.
As Stevens tells it, Alaska and Washington were outsiders in 1960s
Washington, D.C., with their collective noses pressed up against the
window in Congress.
But the collaboration of Stevens and legendary Washington Sens.
Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson produced money, power and a
Stevens helped Magnuson push through the 1976 fisheries act that
established regulations to preserve commercial fishing along the
He helped win money to add a third runway to Seattle-Tacoma
International Airport, worked to get Alaska Airlines gate space at
Reagan National Airport in D.C. and supported expansion of the Port
He has also directed billions in defense spending to Boeing, his No.
1 corporate contributor.
When the company sought a $23 billion contract for new Air Force
refueling tankers, it was Stevens - not Cantwell or Sen. Patty
Murray - who sneaked it into the Senate, bypassing the normal
hearings and contract process.
Boeing likely would have the contract now if McCain hadn't blocked
Blaming his recent falling out with Washington state on Cantwell's
intransigence, Stevens practices the ancient art of divide and
He praises Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks for working cooperatively with
him on issues important to the region.
"My God, the things that come up on a daily basis where I bump into
Patty in the subway, or pick up the phone and call Norm," he said.
Stevens is part of the older Senate generation that likes colleagues
to show deference to longtime leaders.
Murray, a liberal Democrat, does just that.
When Coburn tried to cut Stevens' bridge from the budget, Murray
quietly strong-armed other senators to support Stevens, telling them
their own projects could be at risk.
Later, she managed to save a $500,000 appropriation for the Seattle
Art Museum's sculpture park that also was under fire from Coburn.
Dicks says that working with Stevens is a necessary art.
"It's an important part of politics for the Northwest," he said. "Ted
is smart, and he knows how to play the game here better than almost
anyone. And he has been good for us many times."
Is his power slipping?
"Stevens threatened some fellow senators in ways that did not go down
well," Mann said of the ANWR vote in December. "The contemporary
Senate is less amenable to the type of clout that Stevens has
Indeed, he appeared to be losing on more fronts than ANWR last year.
In September, Roll Call newspaper ripped his chairmanship of the
Commerce Committee for disorganization and missed cues.
Stevens' gift as a deal maker among a small group of senators served
him well on the Appropriations Committee, which he chaired for
several years until 2004. But in the Commerce Committee, where
legislation is made, the process is more public and success is built
through consensus among larger coalitions of senators.
He got into another contretemps last year when he pushed for one of
his former aides to become president of the National Association of
Broadcasters, an influential lobby.
In another age, the broadcasters might not have bucked Stevens, whose
committee oversees the airwaves. But they chose the head of the beer
wholesalers association instead. Stevens was said to be surprised and
But he seems to have regrouped.
He is rewriting the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a mammoth bill
that includes billion-dollar deregulatory provisions for TV, radio
and telephone companies. The Internet and Microsoft are all part of
He has also become outspoken against indecency on TV, holding
numerous hearings and threatening action against what he considers
smut in popular entertainment.
ANWR is back, too.
Last month, the U.S. House voted to approve oil drilling in the
Arctic refuge. The issue likely will go back to the Senate, where
Cantwell and Stevens could face off again.
Some members of Washington state's D.C. contingent say Cantwell
should try to smooth over the hard feelings and call Stevens or send
him a note.
He doubts that will happen, noting the antagonism in Congress between
the two parties.
"It is necessary to have across-the-aisle relationships," Stevens
said. "It is not an aisle now, it is a canyon.
"Build a bridge across that one," he said, smiling, "and that is a
bridge to nowhere."
HIS POWER AT WORK
In Alaska: He has made his home state No. 1 in per capita federal
spending: $12,885 per person in 2004.
In Washington state: He has directed billions in defense spending to
Boeing, his top corporate contributor, and helped Seattle-Tacoma
International Airport's expansion.
What others say: "Ted is the master of Senate politics. Some people
acquire power and never use it. But if you're in a position to use
power, then shame on you if you don't." - Former Sen. John Breaux, D-
BRINGING HOME THE BACON
Sen. Ted Stevens has directed billions in federal dollars to Alaska
over the years.
_The fiscal year 2006 budget includes more than $1 billion earmarked
for parks, energy resources, water, business development and defense
in his home state.
_The 2005 long-term federal transportation bill includes $1 billion
in direct appropriations for Alaska, including $2.9 million for a
documentary on the state's infrastructure.
_Stevens' news releases tout that he has won more than $5 billion in
earmarked funds for his state since 2001.
_On average, the state has received $1.80 in federal help for every
dollar in taxes Alaskans paid to Washington, D.C.
Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense, Northeast-Midwest Institute
calculations, Seattle Times staff researchers Gene Balk and David
TIMELINES TO A COLLISION
Both born in Indianapolis, Sens. Ted Stevens and Maria Cantwell have
clashed primarily over energy and environmental issues.
1923: Ted Stevens born in Indianapolis.
Early 1950s: Stevens moves to Alaska to practice law in Fairbanks.
1958: Maria Cantwell born in Indianapolis.
1964: Stevens elected to Alaska House of Representatives.
1968: Stevens appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy, then is
1968: Cantwell celebrates her 10th birthday.
1976: Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson and Stevens push through the
Magnuson Fisheries Act.
1980: Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Stevens work together
to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
1981: Cantwell graduates from Miami University of Ohio.
1981: Stevens becomes ranking Republican on Defense Appropriations
Subcommittee. He now chairs the subcommittee.
1986: Cantwell elected to Washington state House.
1991: Stevens loses an attempt to open ANWR to oil drilling.
1992: Cantwell elected to U.S. House.
1995: Cantwell, after losing her House seat, joins software startup
1997: Stevens becomes chairman of Senate Appropriations Committee.
2000: Cantwell elected to U.S. Senate.
2005: Stevens becomes chairman of Senate Commerce Committee.