WASHINGTON -- As an old-school Democratic liberal, these should be depressing days for freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. He has gotten little but criticism from fellow Democratic senators and, apparently, from the White House over his recent efforts, along with freshman Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, to stall Senate approval of a compromise $16.4 billion in spending cuts.
The compromise legislation that came to the Senate floor for a voice vote just before the Fourth of July recess still contained cuts approved by President Clinton that Wellstone could not tolerate. Sharply reduced were such programs as low-income assistance, youth employment, job training for dislocated workers and benefits for the elderly, with no comparable cuts in defense spending. So Wellstone, along with his Illinois colleague, demanded the chance to offer amendments to the deal struck between the Republican congressional leadership and the White House.
An irate Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole responded by pulling the bill off the floor, declaring: "I'm not going to worry about it anymore. Let Clinton worry about it." Since then the president, who vetoed an earlier version before agreeing to the compromise, has had aides talking to Wellstone in the hope that he will get in line. But the Minnesota freshman says he will not be deterred from trying to protect such programs.
With a president of his own party so willing to accept cuts in programs that once were the heart of the Democratic agenda, Wellstone by all rights should be depressed. But at a time other liberal Democrats are making retirement plans or simply complaining on the sidelines, this indefatigable progressive declares that "this is one of those great moments in the history of the country, and I'm fortunate to be in the Senate."
In other words, Paul Wellstone, who was elected in one of the nation's historically most progressive states, sees the backpedaling on liberal issues by his president as a challenge to hold the line despite the odds that he will be overrun by the Clinton-led shift toward the center of the political spectrum.
Wellstone acknowledges that he faces a lonely fight within his own party, yet he professes optimism that other Democratic senators will join him on future votes to restore elements of the old liberal agenda in such areas as job training, the environment and health care when they recognize what is really happening to them.
While there is considerable unrest within Democratic ranks in Congress over President Clinton's seeming unwillingness to chart an unambiguous liberal course against the new Republican tide, it is notable that it is falling to a freshman back-bencher to give pointed voice to that discontent.
Back home in Minnesota during the recess, Wellstone says, his mini-revolt against Clinton's deal on spending cuts met with general approval from voters. He says a lot of them told him that they didn't necessarily agree with him on the substance "but we're glad you did that" -- stand up and demand a chance to debate the cuts and offer amendments.
The fact that Wellstone ran and was elected in 1990 as a populist voice of independence no doubt prepared Minnesota voters for his recent conduct. When he first entered the Senate, he bucked the old Senate club tradition in various ways. His earnest liberal purity grated on some old-timers, but he has held fast.
When two previous Democratic presidents fell into disfavor with the most liberal elements of their party, outright challenges from veteran Democratic politicians against their renomination resulted -- Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Sen. Ted Kennedy against President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Clinton, by contrast, is hearing only grumbling from the ranks -- and the voice of little-known Paul Wellstone.
It is a voice on people issues reminiscent of another Minnesota liberal, Hubert Humphrey, in his earliest days. Liberals wearing their hearts on their sleeves, as Humphrey did, are out of fashion now, but that doesn't seem to be deterring this latest Minnesota wave-maker.