GOP has little tolerance for independent Hatfield


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon was a prominent Republican officeholder -- governor of his state -- when many of the new Republicans in Congress were still eating strained peas. Now some of these Republicans are suggesting that Hatfield might be booted out as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee because he voted against the balanced budget amendment last week.

Just the idea of Hatfield being so severely chastised for demonstrating independence speaks volumes about the mood of the Republicans who have come to power in both the House and Senate as a result of the Nov. 8 election. They seem to believe they have not only reinvented American politics but been granted some special wisdom to help them accomplish that purpose.

It is understandable that there is frustration among the Senate Republicans because they fell a single vote short of the 67 needed to pass the amendment. The proposal has become one of the centerpieces of the new agenda for the nation the Republicans have written.

Hatfield himself recognized the importance of the issue when he made the offer to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to resign, thus bringing the Senate membership down to 99 and allowing the 66 votes Dole had accumulated to become the necessary two-thirds majority for a proposed amendment. The Oregon Republican made the offer, he said, "out of loyalty to my party and out of loyalty to my leader."

Dole, although obviously irked by defeat, applied a little historical perspective to the situation and declined the offer. "I can find other senators who have sort of strayed away on different votes this year," he said in a weekend interview.

He was also aware that Mark Hatfield has always displayed a quirky independence on issues he considers questions of principle. Unlike most Republicans, he has been a consistent opponent of the death penalty. Unlike all but one other Republican senator, he voted against the resolution authorizing the war in the Persian Gulf in 1991.

But the newly ascendant brand of Republicanism apparently doesn't allow much room for such apostasy. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suggested that Hatfield might be denied funding for his campaign for re-election next year. And Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi said it took "an awful lot of arrogance for him to reject the feelings of his own constituents, his own legislative eaders, his colleagues in the Senate and his leadership, including Bob Dole."

Hatfield was not elected, however, to simply reflect the temperature of his state or the demands of party loyalty on every issue. Senators owe their constituents their best judgment, not just their ability to read overnight opinion polls. And if that judgment angers those constituents too often, they always have the chance to correct things at the polling place.

The alternative, according to the Lotts of the world, apparently is to go along to get along -- a dangerous standard indeed. As Sen. Bob Packwood, Hatfield's Republican colleague from Oregon put it, "If we start going down that road, what will be the next litmus test issue?"

Hatfield, 72, has been an intriguing figure in his two terms as governor and almost five in the Senate. Long before he was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee a few years ago for a conflict-of-interest violation of Senate rules, he was on everyone's list of potential presidential or vice presidential possibilities. Although more moderate than his party, he had convinced his constituents that he could be counted upon for giving them his best judgment.

That might seem to be what the voters of 1994 were seeking when they rebelled against politics as usual. But Hatfield's critical colleagues in the Senate are saying that the freedom to vote your conscience has limits.

What is most disturbing about this attitude is that it is only one manifestation of a kind of political absolutism the Republicans have been practicing since Nov. 8. They seem to believe they not only won the election but by a unanimous vote that has given them a mandate beyond challenge.

The balanced budget amendment is not, however, a black-and-white issue in which all the virtue lies on one side. And Mark Hatfield is a politician who has been making decisions on complex issues for almost 40 years.

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