America's 10 Best Senators
Sunday, Apr. 16, 2006
By MASSIMO CALABRESI AND PERRY BACON JR.
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
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
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
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."