WASHINGTON -- Sen. John H. Chafee, leader of a band of renegade Republicans bucking their party on President Clinton's health care reform legislation, was walking across the Capitol grounds the other day when a voice called out: "Employer mandates!"
Among Republicans, that's an especially nasty epithet. It implies a Clinton-like desire to force businesses to buy health insurance for workers. Mr. Chafee turned to confront his tormentor, former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, who was grinning merrily.
"I couldn't resist needling you," said Mr. Mathias, a liberal Republican who often voted with Democrats during the Nixon and Reagan years, and knows what a tender target Mr. Chafee must be.
The Rhode Islander was leading the cause for health care reform long before Mr. Clinton hit Washington. Mr. Chafee holds critical swing votes that may determine whether the president's bill passes -- and he has enormous say about what shape the legislation takes.
But that puts him in conflict with the political goals of the Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, who is trying to unite his party to block the Clinton bill. Without Mr. Chafee and his band, Mr. Dole lacks the 41 senators he needs for a filibuster. The Republican leader, known for his black moods and sharp temper, doesn't react kindly to such defiance.
"It's always hard when the leader has 40 votes against you," Mr. Chafee acknowledged with his typical New England understatement.
Though he is a firm-jawed Yankee scion of one of Rhode Island's oldest families -- and bears a striking resemblance to a dour 19th-century Vermonter with mutton chops whose portrait hangs outside the Senate chamber -- Mr. Chafee has an easy-going nature and twinkle that soften that severe countenance. He is well-liked and highly respected.
But the political center is often an uncomfortable place in Congress. Hard-liners resent lawmakers who gain leverage by working the middle.
Mr. Chafee has heard much worse than Mr. Mathias' playful taunt since and he and two GOP colleagues joined three Democratic senators in putting together the bipartisan compromise on health care reform -- without employer mandates -- adopted by the Senate Finance Committee this week.
"Three blind mice" was what the Republicans were called on the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. It said they failed to see they were being used by a Democratic White House that wants only to move the process along.
The Journal charged that the Democratic leaders would back the compromise in committee but abandon it once the bill moves on. That strategy was essentially confirmed Thursday by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine when he explained why he was voting for the Chafee compromise plan.
Mr. Dole, a potential challenger to Mr. Clinton in 1996, doesn't call names. But he also doesn't bother to disguise his disappointment with Mr. Chafee and his cohorts -- Dave Durenberger of Minnesota and John C. Danforth of Missouri.
The Republican leader believes it's too soon to compromise with the Democrats. His timetable for deal-making keeps changing but seems to be after this year's elections, when Republican numbers in Congress are expected to rise.
For Mr. Durenberger and Mr. Danforth, also longtime supporters of health reform, that timing means they would be cut out of the action. Both are retiring from Congress at the end of this year.
For Mr. Chafee, 71, who is up for re-election this year to a fourth term, joining an effort to block passage of the Clinton health care plan could hurt politically. His success in a heavily Democratic state is linked to his image as a moderate.
Independence has its price, beyond the glares from Mr. Dole. In 1990, Mr. Chafee was bounced from his leadership post as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference because of his liberal views on such issues as abortion rights and gun control.
If anything, the Senate Republican caucus has grown even more conservative. That's partly why Mr. Dole has been pushed to the right. Last year, the Republican leader was the chief co-sponsor, with Mr. Chafee, of a health care bill closer to Mr. Clinton's proposal than is the current Chafee plan.
The Wall Street Journal editorial called the GOP mavericks -- presumably including Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, the only Republican co-sponsor of the Clinton plan -- the "last of the liberal Republican Mohicans."
But the philosophical center is the political fulcrum of power. It appears likely that if health reform legislation is enacted this year, its chief author would be John Chafee.
As chairman of a Republican task force on health care, Mr. Chafee four years ago began "convening a large group of Republican senators every Thursday morning for breakfast," Mr. Danforth recalled this week. "I had no doubt from the beginning that the legislation ultimately passed would somehow be in the neighborhood of what Chafee was talking about."
Mr. Chafee has offered reform proposals over the years, each one more sweeping than the last. The bill he sponsored last year with Mr. Dole was embraced by the White House because it shared Mr. Clinton's goal of guaranteed health insurance for all Americans. Hillary Rodham Clinton identified Mr. Chafee more than a year ago as a critical ally and has been wooing him since.
But Mr. Chafee, as independent of the White House as he is from Mr. Dole, shaped the latest compromise within the political realities. He has backed away from binding requirements to guarantee "universal coverage." Instead, a commission would recommend steps Congress should take if market reforms and other voluntary measures fail to expand insurance coverage to at least 95 percent of Americans by 2002.
Already, the Finance Committee has been forced to adopt the compromise shaped by Mr. Chafee to break its deadlock. The bipartisan approach would probably carry weight on the Senate floor.
Although Mr. Mitchell plans to combine the Finance proposal with a version closer to the Clinton plan, Mr. Durenberger said that the majority leader can't go too far left without losing those three key Republican votes.
In the House, where there is nervousness even among Democrats about the employer "mandate" and other features of the Clinton proposal, the Chafee compromise is attracting supporters.
"I'm very interested in what's going on in the Senate Finance Committee," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a freshman Democrat from North Dakota. "I'm part of the broad center that is not at all enthusiastic about the mandate proposals coming out of House committees. I am holding out more hope for [the Chafee] effort than anything else in terms of prospects for enacting something significant this year."