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Bare-knuckles Alaska senator hulks over Washington state politics

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  • Mike Neuman
    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.
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 4, 2006
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      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
      environmental issues.

      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
      punish opponents.

      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
      third senator.

      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
      opposing party.

      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
      personal bond.

      Stevens helped Magnuson push through the 1976 fisheries act that
      established regulations to preserve commercial fishing along the
      Northwest coast.

      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
      of Tacoma.

      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
      the deal.

      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
      the equation.

      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."
      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-


      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

      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.
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