The DeConcini Treatment


It was "deja vu all over again" on Capitol Hill this week. As it happened in 1978, when Jimmy Carter was desperate for one last vote to pass the Panama Canal Treaty, so it happened again in 1993 when Bill Clinton needed just one more "yea" to sustain his hopes for approval of his budget package.

In both instances, the apparent winning margin was provided by Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, whose chief other claim to fame is his membership in the Keating Five. These were the five senators who lobbied federal regulators on behalf of S&L; fraud ++ kingpin Charles Keating. For taking $85,000 from Keating, Mr. DeConcini was wrist-slapped by the Senate Ethics Committee and his colleagues for an "appearance of impropriety."

Thus it comes as no surprise that Mr. DeConcini is in deep trouble as he seeks a fourth Senate term next year. Republicans have labeled him their "Target No. 1." But it also is no surprise to Arizonans that his prospects have been improving because of his assiduous devotion to local interests.

Examples: He slipped a bill through that gave an Arizona manufacturer what amounted to an exclusive franchise on the sale of toner for federal fax and copying machines. He championed Anita Hill's lawyer for the job of U.S. attorney in Arizona to atone to angry feminists for his vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

One lobbyist who has dealt with Mr. DeConcini describes him as "thoughtful and a wheeler-dealer, but you can't trust the bastard." He complained that the senator, 56, always seems to have half a dozen agendas in motion, some contradictory.

No doubt the two Democratic presidents who have gotten the DeConcini treatment would privately agree. President Carter, after reluctantly accepting DeConcini reservations that almost killed the Panama pact, wrote in his memoirs: "I wonder if the results would justify the terrible costs." President Clinton this week had to ease the tax burden on Social Security beneficiaries, who exist in great number under the Arizona sun, and issue an executive order to set up a gimmicky deficit reduction trust fund to get Mr. DeConcini's vote.

What changed the senator's mind? "Good government," joked the president. Arizonans expect more three-dimensional or dollar-sign goodies.

Why is it that one undistinguished lawmaker can maneuver himself into a position in which the most important economic legislation of the decade hangs on his vote? One reason is the shakiness of the Democratic majority as the Republicans align solidly against anything the administration offers. Another, more personal reason, is Mr. DeConcini's penchant for holding back and keeping all options open until he can exert ultimate leverage.

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