Chafee May be Crucial

Posted November 1, 2004 at 6:41pm

When the political dust finally settles on the 2004 elections, control of the Senate majority may rest squarely on the shoulders of a Northeast Republican who stated six weeks ago he would not vote to re-elect President Bush.

Democrats and Republicans privately acknowledge that Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) might be one of the most powerful politicians in the nation’s capital if he wakes up Wednesday morning to find that Bush has won a second term and the Senate is evenly divided. Republicans would claim the Senate majority based on Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking organizational vote, but Chafee could deny Bush a lock on the Senate majority by switching parties.

“It would be the Republicans’ worst nightmare and the Democrats’ best day,” said a veteran Democratic Senate aide. “With the Senate so evenly divided, it could come down to Senator Chafee.”

A centrist Republican often at odds with the White House, Chafee has been coveted by Democrats as a potential party switcher since 2001, when Senate Republicans were cast out of power a mere six months into the 107th Congress. The GOP was forced into the minority for the first time since 1994 after another disgruntled centrist Republican, Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), abandoned his GOP colleagues to align himself politically with Senate Democrats.

Jeffords’ action displaced 20 GOP chairmen and gave Democrats a forum to battle the Bush agenda.

While Jeffords would eventually make Senate history, he was not the only Republican being pursued by Democrats. At the same time Democrats were talking to Jeffords, they were also courting Chafee and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), both of whom rebuffed their offers and stayed in the GOP fold. But the conversations with Chafee never stopped, several Democratic sources said.

“There has been no pressure, but constructive conversations,” said a senior Democratic aide with knowledge of the efforts.

Republicans said there is a real understanding among GOP leaders that Chafee could bolt the party much in the same way Jeffords did in 2001, but a top aide vowed Republicans would do everything they could to prevent it from happening.

“The bottom line is leadership will do all they can to keep him fully integrated in the life and body of the Conference,” said a GOP leadership aide.

For his part, Chafee is saying very little about his political future.

“The Senator prefers to get through the election and see where we are,” said Debbie Rich, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Republican.

Still, Chafee is not shy about criticizing the White House for its handling of the Iraq war, tax cuts and environmental policy. He revealed in September that he would not vote for Bush. The Rhode Island Republican later said he would vote for Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, by writing in his name on the ballot.

Several Democrats said the wooing of Chafee is being spearheaded by Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who led the successful effort to convince Jeffords to switch parties in 2001. As a reward for handing Democrats the majority, Reid gave Jeffords the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

His Democratic colleagues considered it a selfless act by Reid, who might now personally benefit from it should Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) lose in his re-election battle against former Rep. John Thune (R).

Reid is expected to run for Democratic leader if Daschle loses, and a major plank in the Nevada Republican’s leadership platform ostensibly would be his successful effort to help put Democrats into the majority in 2001.

As for Chafee, “I am sure he has got a post-Nov. 2 offer in his back pocket,” a Democratic insider said of Reid.

It is not clear if Chafee would receive a similar offer to head a panel, but the insider noted that Democratic Caucus rules are much more pliable than Republicans’. “Our rules are flexible enough that we could give him damn near anything, but theirs are not and that is reason enough for them to be concerned,” the Democratic insider said.

The Republican Conference follows a strict seniority system when it comes to committee assignments, while Democrats empower their leaders to make panel appointments.

“Unfortunately, our options are limited but Chafee is valuable,” said a senior Republican aide.

The aide noted the short-term consequences of a switch would be devastating and added that the long-term loss could be just as severe. Rhode Island is a Democratic stronghold where then-Vice President Al Gore defeated Bush 61 percent to 32 percent in the 2000 presidential race. Kerry is expected today to win the state’s four electoral votes.

And Chafee, the lone Republican in the state’s four-member Congressional delegation, is the GOP’s best chance of retaining his Senate seat in 2006.

“It is a brutal state and we all know that he is a valuable part of our Conference,” said the senior Republican aide.

Still, Chafee is the son of legendary late Sen. John Chafee (R.I.), who was a fixture in Republican politics in the state until his death in 1999. The current Sen. Chafee was appointed to fill his father’s unexpired Senate term following his death and went on to win his own six-year term in 2000.

While Chafee’s policy goals appear to be more in line with Democrats, the pressure to remain a Republican might be enough to persuade him from jumping ship, a Senate Democratic aide suggested.

“Lincoln Chafee is a moderate Republican, but he is also a Chafee Rhode Islander,” the aide said. “I don’t know if he would switch parties no matter what.”