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TIME: America's 10 Best Senators

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1184028,00.html America s 10 Best Senators Sunday, Apr. 16, 2006 By MASSIMO CALABRESI AND PERRY BACON JR. By
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 17, 2007
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      America's 10 Best Senators
      Sunday, Apr. 16, 2006

      By law, just about anyone can be a U.S. Senator. The Constitution
      requires only that you have reached your 30th birthday, reside in the
      state you represent and have held American citizenship for nine years.
      But if the framers made qualifying for the job easy, they made
      excelling at it difficult. James Madison called the Senate a "fence"
      against the "fickleness and passion" of public opinion, and the rules
      of the place ensure that it is as cumbersome and restrictive as that
      sounds. Any of the 100 members can try to change, or completely
      hijack, another member's bill as it comes up for a vote. And any one
      of them can bring the place to a halt with a filibuster. Mastering a
      powerful institution that relies on comity but requires confrontation
      takes a special kind of talent.

      Or talents. There is no fixed journey to greatness in the Senate.
      Instead there is a whole variety of skills that America's Senators
      have developed over 218 years to help them raise and spend tax
      dollars, oversee the operation of government and, in the case of the
      best among them, pass laws that benefit their constituents, their
      country and the world. Time spoke to dozens of academics, political
      scientists and current and former Senators to pick the 10 best of the
      109th Congress. One made it because he puts unsexy but important
      issues on the national agenda, another because his backroom
      negotiating turns conflict into consensus. A third got on the list for
      his diligent bird-dogging of Enron, Homeland Security and the
      Pentagon. Then there's the prodigious across-the-aisle dealer, the
      fierce defender of her constituents and the expert who sees around
      corners. As with any all-star team, we sought a broad range of gifts
      rather than settling on 10 great pitchers or middle linebackers.

      They say the Senate is the world's most exclusive club. But the real
      elite is made up not of those who break in but of those who make a
      difference once they get there. Here are 10 who do.

      Thad Cochran: The Quiet Persuader

      When the Louisiana congressional delegation publicly demanded a
      staggering $250 billion from the government to rebuild the Gulf Coast
      after Hurricane Katrina, the move completely backfired. It angered
      G.O.P. conservatives, who then spent the next two months pushing for
      cuts in the budget and ignoring Louisiana and Mississippi. But then
      Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran got tough on behalf of his state.
      In a closed-door meeting last December, several Republican Senators
      were talking about how to pass quickly a key bill that would provide
      money for the Defense Department so lawmakers could head home for the
      holidays. Cochran simply announced that "this bill won't pass" unless
      it includes money for the Gulf Coast.

      As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which decides how
      Congress doles out money, Cochran wields considerable power on Capitol
      Hill, particularly on budget issues. But along with that post, Cochran
      has gained the trust of the Administration and Capitol Hill for his
      quiet, courtly manner that is evident whether he is playing the piano
      in his office or using his experience and mastery of the issues to
      persuade his colleagues privately rather than making demands on them
      in public. "I don't call lots of news conferences," Cochran says. "I
      just don't see that as a necessary part of my responsibilities."

      On Katrina, Cochran, along with other Gulf Coast lawmakers, created a
      detailed list of the region's essential needs that totaled about $35
      billion. He then had dozens of meetings with other lawmakers,
      emphasizing how badly the region needed the money but never publicly
      blasting Congress for moving too slowly. In the end, he got $29
      billion out of his colleagues, almost double the money Bush and
      Congressional leaders had initially pledged.

      Cochran, first elected in 1976, is often overshadowed in Washington by
      the junior Senator from his state, the ambitious and often
      controversial Trent Lott. But Cochran, 68, has carved several niches
      for himself, including becoming one of the few Senators well versed on
      farm policy. "He doesn't get a whole lot of play in terms of
      coverage," says a senior G.O.P. Senator, "but he is effectively
      stubborn doing what needs to be done."

      Kent Conrad: The Statistician

      In 2001 the staff of the senate rules Committee called Kent Conrad's
      office with a complaintâ€"and a solution. The North Dakota Democrat was
      using more charts than all the other Senators combined, so to free
      printing time for others, they gave him his own equipment. Last month
      during his 37-minute opening statement in the battle over the budget,
      Conrad went through 37 charts. "We call him chart man," teases
      Republican Whip Mitch McConnell. McConnell grudgingly concedes,
      though, that "[Conrad] does a good job of representing [the
      Democrats'] arguments."

      Conrad, 58, long ago took the advice party leaders give Senate
      newcomers: pick one area and master it. That gives you clout and
      guarantees that someone on your side knows what he or she is talking
      about. Over 20 years, Conrad, the ranking Democrat on the Budget
      Committee, has made himself the king of that most important part of
      the Senate's businessâ€"raising and spending the taxpayers' money. "As I
      read history, nothing is more important than a strong and growing
      economy," he says. "I think that's been the genius of America, and I
      believe these runaway debts threaten it all."

      Orphaned at 5 when his parents were killed in a car accident, Conrad,
      along with his brothers, was raised by his grandparents and by an
      uncle and aunt. He's careful in his habits: he spends modestly on
      travel, he balances his checkbook daily, and when he drinks, it's
      never more than two cocktaills. He and the Democrats helped lead an
      unsuccessful fight to prevent the Bush Administration from raising the
      U.S. debt limit to $9 trillion and from passing a $2.8 trillion budget
      that is projected to increase the deficit to at least $350 billion
      this year.

      Conrad launched his political career as a tax commissioner in
      Bismarck, rooting through phone and tax records to dig up evidence of
      tax fraud by out-of-state companies. His budget expertise came in
      handy when President Bush, pushing a plan for partially privatizung
      Social Security last year, put the hard sell on him. Bush first tried
      by flying with Conrad to Fargo, N.D., then, after they returned, kept
      the pressure on by inviting him to the White House, where he dropped
      hints about election-year vulnerability for red-state Democrats. But
      Conrad, whose honorary Sioux name translates as "Never Turns Back,"
      stood firm in his opposition to the plan. "I could never support
      something that added dramatically to the debt," Conrad says. "I told
      him, 'Count me out.'"

      Dick Durbin: The Debater

      Even though the senate is occasionally dubbed the World's Greatest
      Deliberative Body, actual debate on the Senate floor rarely happens:
      members just read prepared speeches written by aides and then return
      to their offices. Then there's Dick Durbin. On issues from immigration
      reform to judicial nominees, the Illinois Democrat frequently engages
      in public back and forth with his Senate colleagues in hearings and
      before votesâ€"and rarely uses notes to do it. "I can't do it any other
      way," says Durbin of his off-the-cuff style. "That's me."

      And while the debates don't often change the votes of other members,
      Durbin's tough questioning of his colleagues and his willingness to
      defend his own proposals clarify and distill complicated issues for
      the C-SPAN-viewing public. Occasionally, Durbin's arguments even carry
      the day, as when he won support on the Senate Judiciary Committee for
      a provision in an immigration bill that would protect church groups
      and others from prosecution if they aided illegal immigrants.

      Of course, speaking extemporaneously has its risks, which Durbin
      learned last fall after he was forced to apologize for comparing
      alleged abuse of prisoners by American troops at Guantanamo Bay to
      techniques used by the Nazis, the Soviets and the Khmer Rouge. And
      some Republicans complain Durbin is too strident in his role as
      assistant leader of Senate Democrats, constantly on the attack against
      Republicans and President Bush. But Durbin, 61, has a bipartisan side.
      He has joined with Senator Rick Santorum, a staunch Republican from
      Pennsylvania, to push the U.S. government to give $866 million in
      additional funds for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and
      Malaria. Early this year, he helped broker a compromise between
      Democrats and Republicans to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, working
      on a provision that will keep libraries from having to hand over
      information about users without an order from a judge.

      And if he can't reach a compromise behind the scenes, Durbin is happy
      to return to the open well of the Senate. "I really enjoy debate," he
      says. "The battle of ideas is what it should be about."

      Ted Kennedy: The Dogged Achiever

      Over 43 years in the senate, Democrat Ted Kennedy has fought serial
      battles on behalf of the working classâ€"from defending overtime pay and
      workplace-safety regulations to expanding health-care availability and
      penalizing discrimination. But the key to his legacy is not that he is
      determined to stick up for his principles. It's that he is willing to
      compromise on them.

      Late in 1990, for example, Kennedy sat red-faced as House Democrat Pat
      Schroeder berated him for supporting something he didn't believe in:
      caps on damages for workplace discrimination. But by agreeing to
      limits, Kennedy won over the handful of Republican and Southern
      Democratic Senators he needed to secure passage of the Civil Rights
      Act of 1991, strengthening laws that banned job discrimination. The
      result was a law that protects women from sexual harassment at work
      and has yielded a surge in lawsuits and tens of millions of dollars in
      damages to aggrieved plaintiffs.

      Kennedy was a bit of a joke when he first arrived in Washington in
      1962. When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he kept his
      Massachusetts Senate seat warm for his youngest sibling, placing a
      college buddy in it for two years until Teddy reached the
      constitutionally required age of 30. But starting with a 1965 bill
      that did away with country-by-country quotas for immigrants, and
      especially in the quarter-century since his failed 1980 campaign for
      President, Kennedy, 74, has amassed a titanic record of legislation
      affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the
      country. With a succession of Republicans, he helped create COBRA, the
      Americans with Disabilities Act, portable health care, the Family and
      Medical Leave Act and more than 15 key education programs, including
      the landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He also
      pushed through the deregulation of the airline and trucking industries
      and the reduction of the voting age to 18. By the late '90s, the
      liberal icon had become such a prodigious cross-aisle dealer that
      Republican leaders began pressuring party colleagues not to sponsor
      bills with him.

      Some bipartisan efforts have backfired on Kennedy. He has complained
      that he was taken in by Bush on the No Child Left Behind law because
      it was inadequately funded, and Democrats are distressed that he has
      collaborated with Republicans on immigration reform. Worse than that,
      critics say, Kennedy's inability to stop the confirmation of Supreme
      Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito show he's
      losing his swat. But Kennedy still finds a way to deliver the goods
      for the less advantaged. Over the next five years, more than 100,000
      severely disabled children will become beneficiaries of a new $872
      million program that continues government health-care payments to them
      even as they move out of poverty. Kennedy and Iowa Republican Chuck
      Grassley managed to slip the program into last year's budget.

      Jon Kyl: The Operator

      Many junior senators waste away in the shadow cast by a giant senior
      colleague. But in just two terms, Arizona's No. 2, Jon Kyl, 63, has
      blossomed in the shade of John McCain. As head of the Republican
      policy committee, the ultraconservative Kyl is in charge of shaping
      the Republican agenda in the Senate on everything from abortion and
      judicial appointments to national security and tax cuts. He has
      succeeded by mastering a tactic that is crucial in a body in which any
      one member can bring the place to a halt as a ploy or out of pique:

      Last November, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
      proposed a controversial amendment barring U.S. courts from hearing
      cases brought by prisoners in the war on terrorism. It turned out that
      Kyl was behind it, having worked on the language for months and having
      assigned his staff to help write the final bill. But "it was a
      situation where it was best handled by Lindsey," Kyl says delicately,
      pointing out that Graham had the credibility of a military lawyer and
      a centrist. When urgent legislation to respond to Hurricane Katrina
      bumped Kyl's long-sought goal of a vote on abolishing the estate tax
      last fall, Kyl quietly worked to get it back on the Senate agenda by
      recruiting Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions in an unsuccessful attempt to
      find victims of the disaster who would be paying the tax. And although
      he denies it, G.O.P. aides say that when Harriet Miers was nominated
      to the Supreme Court last October, Kyl and his staff led a
      behind-the-scenes effort to undermine the nomination.

      As the Miers fight showed, Kyl does not always find himself on the
      same side of the battlements as President Bush. The Senator was a
      leading opponent of the immigration reform compromise backed by the
      President that collapsed earlier this month. When the Senate returns
      from recess next week, the Judiciary Committee will take up the
      immigration debate again. Watch for Kyl to play a pivotal roleâ€"if
      perhaps not the most conspicuous one. "You can accomplish a lot if
      you're not necessarily out in front on everything," he says.

      Carl Levin: The Bird-Dogger

      No one would accuse Carl Levin of looking like Hollywood's version of
      a U.S. Senator. He's pudgy, balding and occasionally rumpled, and he
      constantly wears his glasses at the very tip of his nose. Still, the
      Michigan Democrat has gained respect from both parties for his
      attention to detail and deep knowledge of policy, especially in his
      role as a vigilant monitor of businesses and federal agencies. In
      2002, a subcommittee he led hauled in Enron's board of directors to
      question them about the company's shady accounting practices; in
      hearings a year later, he was one of the chief challengers of large
      accounting firms that had created illegal tax shelters. Congress
      passed laws in the wake of both scandals in an effort to prevent the
      abuses from happening again.

      Levin, 71 and first elected in 1978, says he considers congressional
      hearings a critical part of his job, spending as much as 20 hours
      prepping for each one so an evasive witness won't outwit him. The
      former civil-rights lawyer is known for forcing embarrassing
      admissions from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other
      Bush Administration officials through his precise questioning. "You've
      got to be very blunt and truly listen so you know when the b.s. is
      flying," Levin says.

      Although admired by many Republicans for his diligence, Levin rarely
      sides with them. He opposed the Iraq war, and as the top Democrat on
      the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has become one of his party's
      leading voices in criticizing President Bush's conduct of the
      invasion, arguing that the Administration didn't have enough troops in
      the early stages and, more recently, hasn't focused enough on training
      Iraqi troops. But his carefully researched, thoughtful remarks carry
      great weight with his colleagues. "Nobody in the Democratic Caucus
      says anything on national-security issues without talking to Carl
      Levin," says a top Democratic Senate staff member.

      Richard Lugar: The Wise Man

      In an airport in the Russian city of Perm, a minor diplomatic crisis
      broke out last August. In violation of an international treaty, local
      border police refused to allow the plane of Senators Richard Lugar and
      Barack Obama to depart without being inspected. Instead of pitching a
      fit, Lugar, the powerful Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations
      Committee, curled up on a chairâ€"ignoring the overpowering smell of a
      broken toiletâ€"and took a nap. The Russians eventually backed down. "He
      is a quiet, intelligent, steady force," says former Nebraska Senator
      Bob Kerrey, Lugar's former colleague. But make no mistake, Kerrey
      adds, "he's unmovable when he reaches a conclusion about what ought to
      be done."

      That level of conviction helps when, as one of America's leading
      internationalists, you're a defender of free trade and an enemy of
      farm subsidies, yet you represent a state dominated by manufacturing
      and farming. It's also a bonus that Lugar's thinking has often proved
      to be ahead of the curve. In the 1980s, Lugar led the push for
      democracy in the Philippines and South Africa when the Reagan
      Administration was still backing undemocratic regimes there. And
      Lugar, 74, has long been an ardent advocate of developing alternative
      fuels as a way to wean the U.S. from foreign oilâ€"an approach endorsed
      by Bush in January.

      Lugar's signature achievement was to recognize the dangers of loose
      nukes 10 years before 9/11. With Democrat Sam Nunn, he sponsored
      legislation that funded the removal of all nuclear weapons from
      Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan and the deactivation of 6,828 nuclear
      warheads throughout the former Soviet Union. In recent years, Lugar
      has expanded his non-proliferation efforts to help secure
      shoulder-launched missiles, a favorite of terrorists, and
      chemical-weapons depots, like one near the Kazakhstan border that
      contained 1.9 million Sarin gas shells. He is withholding support for
      Bush's recent nuclear deal with India until hearings he has called
      determine whether letting Delhi import technology to build reactors
      would create a new proliferation problem.

      John McCain: The Mainstreamer

      Sometimes the power of a law depends on the lawmaker. Last May the
      Senate unanimously passed a Democratic amendment banning the torture
      of prisoners in U.S. custody. No one paid any attention. Then in
      October John McCain introduced his antitorture amendment, using
      identical language, and the issue landed on the front pages of
      newspapers across the country. The White House jumped to attention,
      dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser
      Stephen Hadley to try to talk McCain down. He stood firm, and the bill
      passed unanimously in December.

      It wasn't just that McCain, 69, had been tortured as a prisoner of war
      in Vietnam. McCain has that rare ability to put an issue on the U.S.
      agenda that wouldn't naturally be there. "It's a question of moral
      authority," says former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman of his
      former colleague. McCain has earned that moral authority over the
      years by being patient and making the big play. Many of the problems
      McCain tackles are entrenched and unexciting: they challenge the rules
      in Washington and the cynicism of voters at home. Over the past
      decade, McCain forced through a reform that made the money coming in
      from rich interest groups and directed at political advertisements
      more transparent. He has spent his entire Senate career exposing
      wasteful pork-barrel projects. And in the past year, he took his
      backwater committee, Indian affairs, and used it to launch an
      investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose admission in federal
      court that he conspired to bribe public officials produced a series of
      efforts to ban certain kinds of influence peddling.

      The skills that allow McCain to put unorthodox issues at center
      stageâ€"independence, single-mindednessâ€"don't always translate well to
      other pursuits. They helped McCain lose the 2000 G.O.P. presidential
      primary by scaring the party establishment and its base. So as the
      front runner in the 2008 campaign, McCain is taking the opposite tack,
      endorsing Bush tax cuts that he once opposed as fiscally unsound;
      embracing religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell, whom he once
      denounced; and endorsing the teaching of intelligent design as an
      alternative to evolution. Opinion writers have been perplexed at the
      preprimary turnaround, but the two-year walk-up to 2008 won't just
      consist of courting the party's die-hards. McCain is scheduled to
      assume the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Armed Services
      Committee next January, a target-rich environment for a waste and
      fraud hunter. He is already stumping against gerrymandering, which he
      says is undemocratic. "It's harder to keep your job in the politburo
      in Havana than in the House of Representatives," McCain says.

      And if he wins in 2008? Among the first items on his agenda in 2009,
      McCain says, is winning the battle that George W. Bush just
      lostâ€"fixing Social Security and other underfunded entitlements.
      Crucial to that effort, he says, is getting Congress to clean house.
      "If you've got $47 billion in earmarks and 6,140 pork-barrel projects
      on the highway bill, how can you expect the American people to make
      tough decisions about entitlement programs?" he asks. No matter what
      happens in '08, says scholar Norman Ornstein, McCain will be
      remembered as "one of the few people who can have great impact in the

      Olympia J. Snowe: The Caretaker

      Because of her centrist views and eagerness to get beyond partisan
      point scoring, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe is in the center of
      every policy debate in Washington. Last year she was one of 14
      Senators who reached a compromise on President Bush's judicial
      nominees that prevented a Senate meltdown between the two parties.
      More recently, she helped craft an agreement to increase congressional
      oversight of the Administration's no-warrant surveillance program,
      helping ease tensions between the Senate and the White House.

      But while Snowe, 59, is a major player on national issues, she is also
      known as one of the most effective advocates for her constituents.
      First elected in 1994, she goes back to Maine nearly every weekend,
      often stopping in a small town for what she calls a "Main Street tour"
      â€" walking the streets and visiting shops to ask people what they're
      thinking about. "It's better than any poll I can think of," she says.
      When Snowe returns to Capitol Hill, she looks to fix the problems
      Maine residents have told her about: she successfully fought to keep
      open two Maine military bases recommended for closure last year, and
      last month she got passed a bill that will provide millions to pay the
      heating bills of low-income people, a huge worry in frigid Maine.

      Snowe's formula of being clued into the center and into home have made
      her very popular in Maine. In a March poll by Survey USA, 71% of
      Snowe's constituents approved of her performance, a rating only a
      handful of Senators ever score. And voters often show their support
      more directly. In 2003, after one of her numerous disagreements with
      the Bush administration, she almost single-handedly forced Bush to
      lower a tax-cut proposal from $700 billion to $350 billion.
      Republicans in Washington were furious. But a few days later in
      Portland, a driver saw Snowe on the street from his car window and
      shouted to the surprised Senator: "You go, Olympia. You stand strong."

      Arlen Specter: The Contrarian

      Plenty of people succeed in politics by being everyone's friend. It
      takes a special talent to make it as a guy whom allies call
      "abrasive," "brutal" and "prosecutorial." Republican Arlen Specter of
      Pennsylvania is known for being blunt, not sparing even members of his
      own party. Unsatisfied with answers Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
      gave in hearings on the Administration's no-warrant
      domestic-wiretapping last February, he said the AG's defense "defies
      logic and plain English," and told the Washington Post Gonzales was
      smoking Dutch Cleanser. And although Specter has mellowed in recent
      years, his recent brush with mortality (he's fighting Hodgkin's
      disease) has made his famous impatience more acute. No wonder few
      Republicans will accept invitations to join him on foreign trips, even
      when they are to South America and the Middle East.

      The chairman of the formidable Judiciary Committee is an
      equal-opportunity offender. He nearly lost his 1992 Senate race when
      feminists mobilized against him after he grilled witness Anita Hill
      during the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Clarence Thomas. In
      2004 Specter found himself on the other side of the feminist divide,
      nearly losing his long-awaited chance to run the committee when he
      opined that a Supreme Court nominee opposed to abortion rights
      wouldn't make it through the Senate.

      Specter's principled contrarianism fits in the tradition of lawmakers
      Senate historian Richard Baker describes as the conscience of the
      institution, men and women who "stand up and say, 'Hold on a minute.'"
      In addition to conducting hearings on Bush's no-warrant wiretap
      program, Specter, 76, has repeatedly challenged FBI chief Robert
      Mueller on what he sees as shortcomings in the agency's performance;
      he chided the Justice Department for not participating in hearings on
      protecting reporters' sources and sent the White House a blistering
      list of questions he would have asked Harriet Miers had she not
      withdrawn from consideration as a Supreme Court Justice.

      Specter can also be constructive. With Patrick Leahy, the ranking
      Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, he turned what could have been
      colossal battles over the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts
      and Samuel Alito into disciplined and respectful hearings. He has
      hammered out enormously complex deals in committee on asbestos
      compensation and immigration reform. And as chairman of a powerful
      appropriations subcommittee, he was largely responsible for doubling
      spending on the National Institutes of Health and for increasing
      education spending 146% over 11 years. All of which he's managed while
      surviving a brain tumor, open-heart surgery and, in the past year, the
      chemotherapy treatment for his Hodgkin's disease. Says his former
      chief of staff David Urban: "You can find a lot of people who don't
      like Arlen Specter, but you can't find anyone who doesn't respect him."
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