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Minority status highlights contrasts in Md. senators Mikulski, Sarbanes deal with GOP from different perspectives

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- After her left hand was injured in a struggle with a mugger last fall, Barbara A. Mikulski joked that she and her colleague Paul S. Sarbanes were a "three-fisted senatorial team."

But while the two Maryland Democrats have tried to deliver one-two punches to Republican initiatives to scale back federal spending -- on Medicare and Medicaid for instance -- they also have staked out their own individual corners in the Republican-led Congress.

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The two have always been different sorts of Democrats. Senator Mikulski, the pragmatist, the doer. Senator Sarbanes, the intellectual, the thinker.

But their differences -- in style and ideology -- have become more pronounced in the minority party, where influence and leverage are harder to come by.

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"I used to get my phone calls returned in an hour and a half; now it takes a day and a half," Ms. Mikulski jokes.

To get those calls returned at all, Ms. Mikulski, like a number of Democratic senators, has operated in what she calls the "common sense center."

She has placed some ideals on the back burner in order to win whatever concessions she can and remain an influential player, which means doing business with the GOP.

Stripped of the influential subcommittee chairmanship she had when the Democrats were in power, she ensured herself a measure of power by securing a leadership position as secretary of the Democratic Conference.

"It has been difficult and frustrating," she says of the change. "But I have made the best use of the cards dealt to us this year. I did not want to be one of those Democrats standing around wringing their hands, saying, 'Isn't this terrible?' "

Mr. Sarbanes, in the company of an ever-dwindling band of Democratic liberals, has held his ground, sacrificing whatever influence he might have in crafting legislation -- and, some would argue, sacrificing relevancy -- in an effort to remain true to his principles.

Like many of his Democratic colleagues in the House, he has opposed at almost every turn the Republicans' effort to chip away at Democratic social spending.

"You try to keep bad things from happening," he says of his role. "I think much of what they're trying to do will really hurt the country. I don't think that's how you build a strong America.

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"I'm concerned about having a decent and just society, and I think a lot of these things are going to make us much less just."

Both senators say they have tried to protect educational opportunities for youth, environmental regulations, affordable health care for senior citizens and the poor, and Maryland's special economic interests.

Little in common

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, believes that minority status has served to highlight how little the two have in common as politicians.

"She has a much more active Richter scale than he does," Mr. Baker says. "She senses the tremors and doesn't want to find herself on the left with the Wellstones and Kennedys. She wants more maneuvering room, she wants to be more influential.

"I think it's less important to him. It's more important for there to be somebody there speaking up for these unfashionable virtues.

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"He's very much a firmly anchored Democratic liberal who sees a creative role to play for government."

Melissa Line, a political analyst and student of Maryland politics, says their backgrounds provide a road map to their styles.

Ms. Mikulski, a former social worker, is results-oriented and "interested in the art of the possible." Mr. Sarbanes, a lawyer, takes a more cerebral approach, "looking to establish philosophical principles that will stand the test of time."

"They're both good goals," Ms. Line says.

Divergence from the start

Their divergence was evident right from the start of the 104th Congress. In voting for a party leader, Mr. Sarbanes supported Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the favorite among old-guard Democrats. Ms. Mikulski backed a fresher face, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who ultimately won by a single vote.

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Their different mind-sets were clearly visible in the debate over welfare reform. Mr. Sarbanes was one of 11 Democrats who voted against the Republicans' plan to end the federal guarantee of welfare benefits for the poor.

"I think there's a great danger that people on the edge will just fall off," he said at the time.

Ms. Mikulski, on the other hand, joined with Senator Daschle and the moderate Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana to win some concessions from the Republicans -- such as more money for child care -- that made the bill less stringent than the House version.

"They would give themselves a B-plus," she says of the Republicans. "I give it a C. But I didn't want to make a perfect bill the enemy of a good bill."

She said she voted for the bill so it would have more bipartisan weight than would the "harsh, punitive" House bill, once the two versions were merged in a conference committee.

Ultimately, the negotiated bill emerged closer to the House version and has been opposed by every Democrat.

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Ms. Mikulski also worked with the Senate Republican whip, Trent Lott of Mississippi, to secure a new federal subsidy for the maritime industry, which is important to Maryland. She voted with Republicans and some Democrats to limit securities-fraud lawsuits -- a bill on which Senator Sarbanes led the opposition.

Of her work with Republicans and her move toward the center, one Mikulski adviser, Carol Tucker Foreman, says: "The politics moved there. If you stand out all by yourself on the left, flapping and honking, you aren't going to accomplish much. Barbara is a legislator. People make a mistake if they think of her as a liberal Democrat."

For her part, Ms. Mikulski labels herself a "pragmatic Democrat" and says she has always been more oriented to the center.

Aside from her leadership post within the party, Ms. Mikulski's slot on the Appropriations Committee -- which delivers the annual spending bills that fund most of the government -- has helped position her as someone prepared to negotiate with the opposition.

"Appropriations is the core of Senate bipartisan institutionalism," says Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School and former House solicitor. "Senators like Mikulski go on Appropriations with the expectation that, wherever else the two parties may conflict, there they concentrate on achieving a bipartisan consensus that can be defended on the Senate floor."

The chief challenger

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In contrast, Mr. Sarbanes' most visible committee assignment is the much more partisan and, these days, more combative Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee, which is leading the Senate's Whitewater hearings.

As the senior Democrat, he has been the chief challenger to the charges of White House wrongdoing put forth by Republicans. At times, he has been the only Democrat to defend the White House and challenge the sharply partisan Republican chairman, Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York.

At one session, Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, the most strident White House critic on the panel, chided the Maryland Democrat for defending the administration.

"When you join this committee as an investigative senator and stop being a defense attorney, we'll make some headway," he snapped at Mr. Sarbanes.

Mr. Sarbanes says his purpose has not been to defend the White House, but rather to make sure the administration is treated fairly. And generally his thoughtful, methodical manner has earned him a measure of deference.

Still, as the senior Democrat on the Whitewater committee, Mr. Sarbanes became the target of an ethics complaint filed last week by Jean Lewis, a federal investigator who said her privacy was invaded when part of a personal letter was revealed by Democrats at a recent Whitewater session.

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These have not been enjoyable times for Democrats like Mr. Sarbanes who are swimming against the conservative tide.

tried unsuccessfully to restore $360 million of homeless assistance to a spending bill for housing. Earlier in the year, he stood with only a handful of other liberal Democrats in opposition to state mandates ordered by the federal government but not funded and a "rescissions" bill that made cuts in the current budget. And he is miles away from the Republican majority on the major budget battles.

"I never believed I would see America turn in this cruel, mean, brutish direction," he said at a news conference this fall.

Ms. Line, the political analyst, says Mr. Sarbanes seems "superficially less effective" in the minority because of his philosophical distance from the majority.

But, as he is considered one of the Senate's top intellects and economic experts, "he's still seen as someone who is respected on both sides of the aisle, who colleagues can always count on for a certain point of view," she says.

Mr. Sarbanes believes that expressing that point of view, and trying to slow the Republican revolution, is an important role.

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"We ought to stand up for what we think is important and right " he says. "And to the extent that the other side is negating very important priorities, we need to point that out to the country and make it clear what they're doing."


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