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WASHINGTON TODAY: Being last holdout can be high-risk maneuver

February 26, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Some lawmakers thrive on the attention they get from being the final holdout when a major piece of legislation is just a vote or two shy of passage. For others, it can be a harrowing experience.

Freshmen Sen. Robert Torricelli is the latest lawmaker to occupy the hot seat.

No stranger to controversy, the Democratic senator from New Jersey _ the last undeclared senator on the proposed balanced budget amendment _ gives no indication it’s a particularly uncomfortable perch for him.

But it hasn’t always been so for others.

Former Sen. Mark Hatfield, an Oregon Republican, found himself ostracized by colleagues for his 1995 vote against the balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, the only Republican ``no″ vote and one that effectively killed it for that year.

``It’s the eye of the hurricane. It’s incredibly intense,″ said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who found himself in a situation similar to Torricelli’s two years ago _ under enormous pressure from Democratic colleagues to oppose the balanced-budget measure even though he philosophically supports one.

Republicans knew a vote from him could help offset Hatfield’s ``no″ vote and help pass the measure.

Conrad voted against the amendment, as did fellow North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan. Conrad said he found that most of his North Dakota constituents didn’t seem to hold the vote against him.

But former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, D-Pa., discovered the hard way in 1994 that voters can be wrathful.

After being the only Democratic freshman to vote against both President Clinton’s budget and $16.3 billion economic stimulus package in 1993, she reversed herself on the budget and cast one of the two final votes that gave Clinton a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the House, 218-216. She said she changed her mind after a phone conversation with Clinton 15 minutes before the vote.

She lost her 1994 re-election bid in her largely affluent Philadelphia district, in large part because of her vote for the budget, which raised taxes on the wealthy.

Torricelli voted for the GOP-sponsored amendment when he was a House member two years ago, and supported such an amendment during his Senate campaign last fall.

With both sides actively courting him, Torricelli was expected to announce his decision today _ and meanwhile was publicly being coy on the subject, even though associates privately believed he was likely to side with Democratic leaders and vote ``no″ in the end.

``I promise to be guided by my judgment,″ was all Torricelli would say about his situation, in an otherwise rambling speech late Tuesday to the Senate.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., came under intense pressure from the Clinton White House when, in 1993, he opposed the president’s budget plan until the very last moment _ and only after a reportedly obscenity-laden outburst from the president.

Announcing his decision on the Senate floor, Kerrey said in a speech aimed at Clinton: ``I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down your presidency.″

As a partial payback, Clinton named Kerrey to head a blue-ribbon panel to study the deficit.

Clinton’s naming of a Capital Budget Commission on Tuesday to study the financing of federal construction projects _ known to be a key concern of Torricelli _ was seen by many as a similar attempt at a payback, this time in advance, for the lawmaker’s prospective vote.

Torricelli became the remaining undecided senator after another wavering freshman, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., ended her fence-sitting Tuesday and announced support for the GOP-drafted amendment.

She told reporters she anguished over the decision, but that her commitment to voters to support such an amendment outweighed her loyalty to Democratic leaders.

Torricelli ``has not characterized the pressure as overwhelming,″ his spokesman, Jim Jordan, said. Jordan said Torricelli had heard from the president and from Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. ``And he’s had frequent conversations with the Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle.″

If Torricelli should break party ranks and support the amendment, it’s unlikely he would be subject to the kind of cold shoulder that Hatfield received from Republicans in 1995.

Said Conrad: ``On our side, it has never been treated as such a defining issue.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Tom Raum covers politics and national affairs for The Associated Press.

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