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Moderately Republican

Scorned by conservatives, a handful of mostly Yankee, moderate Republicans are the real comeback kids of the impeachment saga. They include: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, John Chaffee of Rhode Island, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. They are joined by Ted Stevens from Alaska and Slade Gorton of Washington. Their votes put together with those of 45 Democrats could become a deciding factor in whether to shut down the Senate trial later this month.

These politicians are less in the mold of Nelson Rockefeller, the most famous of the moderate Republicans, than of Christine Todd Whitman, New Jersey's governor. The moderates are fiscal conservatives. Nothing makes them happier than a tax cut. But they are liberal on social and cultural issues, often pro-choice and eschewing the antiabortion positions of right-wing hard-liners. And they can be maddeningly quixotic, like Specter, who picks up an issue like the rise of the militia movement only to drop it; or opportunistic, like Stevens, an ace at winning pork barrel projects for Alaska.

Of the moderates, the two women senators from Maine are probably the most important, and Snowe, now the senior senator, reckons to become a major power. Maine has close ties to Clinton with another former Republican moderate, William Cohen, a former Maine senator, sitting as Secretary of Defense. Former Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell, yet another Mainer, has acted as a Clinton emissary to Northern Ireland.

With conservative Southern Democrats going Republican in droves during the 1990s, Clinton played up to these moderates, pushing tax cuts and write-offs and government privatization. He currently is stressing education, a favorite moderate GOP topic, and gives lip service to environmentalism, another plank in their platform dating back to hero Teddy Roosevelt. Clinton's speeches and announcements on education and tax deductions so far this year are replete with moderate Republican thinking. Indeed, Democrats in Congress long have fumed that the president is more of a Republican than a traditional Democrat. Last week, Mitchell, a former prosecutor and federal judge who now works for the same law firm as Bob Dole, publicly defended Clinton as the Senate trial got under way. Mitchell stands as surely the most impressive advocate for the president in Washington, and, were he to become actively involved in support of Clinton, the entire tone of the president's defense could change.


Talking Trash
Virginia to Rudy: Up Yours

With a scream, the entire state government of Virginia has risen up in anger against New York City and its mayor. Last week, Giuliani said Virginia ought to get over its "knee-jerk" aversion to taking Big Apple garbage.

"The mayor is out of line," Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III retorted. The governor's comments came on the heels of press reports that Waste Management, the big garbage company, had signed contracts allowing it to substantially increase the amount of garbage imported into Virginia from New York and elsewhere.

"Now let me see if I have this right," drawled Virginia state senator William T. Bolling. "We go to New York City and we pay our hard-earned money to get there. We pay our hard-earned money to buy goods in their shops and food in their restaurants. We spend our hard-earned money to attend plays on Broadway. Yet somehow, we have to reciprocate for those pleasures by accepting their trash."

"The people of Virginia should be outraged by the arrogance that obviously exists at the highest levels of government in New York City," he continued. "Mr. Mayor, listen closely . . . Make no mistake about it. We will not stand idly by and allow the Commonwealth of Virginia to become a dumping ground for New York City and New York State."


Rehashed Reaganomics
Dems Disappear from Social Security Debate

Under cover of impeachment, the right's battle to eliminate Social Security moves forward across a broad front with a clueless Democratic party on the defense. The main proposal in Congress is a bill based on the work of the National Commission on Retirement Policy, sponsored in the Senate by Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican, and John Breaux, the Democrat from Louisiana. In the House it is backed by a so-called blue dog (conservative) Democrat, Charlie Stenholm from Kentucky, and Jim Kolbe, Republican from Arizona. This bill diverts money into private IRA-type accounts, which reduces the overall size of the trust fund, exacerbating its shortfall and forcing a reduction by nearly one-quarter of disability and survivors' benefits to spouses and dependents.

The most aggressive attack on this legislation comes not from liberals but from the libertarian right, which believes it muddles the debate and makes the Republicans look like skinflints by cutting benefits to the elderly. As a result, Texas senator Phil Gramm is pushing an alternative designed by Martin Feldstein, a Harvard economist and former chairman of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors. This is a scarcely believable scheme that would raise Social Security retirement income with no tax increases. Reminiscent of the supply-side euphoria under Reagan's OMB director, David Stockman, this plan would be financed by supposed future budget surpluses. Unfortunately, the size of these surpluses, if there are any, is unknown, and there are other claims on them. When they disappear, there would be more taxes, or, more likely, more cuts in existing programs, chiefly medicare. So, at base, the Feldstein plan is a skillful time bomb to gut not only Social Security but what little remains of publicly financed medical insurance as well.  

Republicans support the Feldstein plan because, with the 2000 presidential campaign getting under way, it allows them to have it both ways: pledging to support current Social Security benefits and also advocating tax cuts. The Democrats are too out of it to fight back. Lobbyists have found them so ill-informed about the workings of the Social Security system that they are unable to discuss its operations, let alone make arguments for reform. Participants at last month's White House conference on Social Security came away aghast at the ignorance of congressional Democrats at a closed-door meeting on the subject. Since then, House minority leader Dick Gephardt has tried to bring members up to speed, and unions are jumping in to help make the fight.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Tom Daschle sits over a potentially explosive and divided Democratic caucus. Five of the Democrats on the key Finance Committee— Breaux, Moynihan, Bob Kerrey, Lieberman, and Robb— are for some sort of privatizing, which means, at this early stage in the fight, key Dem leaders are setting the party on a path toward political suicide in 2000 by embracing reduced benefits, something the right-wing Republicans have enough sense to oppose. Insiders say Al Gore is somewhat stronger in defending Social Security than is Clinton, whose mind is elsewhere.


Skyrocketing Costs
NASA Racks Up the Travel Bills

Tennessee's Senator Fred Thompson reports that NASA has been paying up to $20,000 per round-trip from Houston to Moscow, to and from airfields where there is virtually no security. "NASA is paying at least 10 times what an average flight costs to Moscow," Thompson said. "In fact, if NASA called a travel agent today they could purchase a ticket for $555 to Moscow." A report by the space agency's inspector general found that the average cost per passenger under NASA's charter contract with the Pentagon's Air Mobility Command ranged from $2753 to $19,883 during 1998.

Like everybody else, NASA officials could have hopped a commercial jet from Houston to New York and easily transferred to a Moscow flight, but according to the report NASA employees believed "the charter service is safer than commercial aircraft," and it was a plus for their "morale" and "comfort" because the government employees flying charters could "lie down across the seats and sleep." The report also notes the added benefit that charter passengers receive "up-to-date health information for overseas travelers as the passengers board the charter or during the flight"— even though these same advisories can be found on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control, or obtained from companies like American Express. And, says the report, "personnel interviewed also stated the charter service is safer than commercial airlines because DOD flight safety requirements used by the AMC [Air Mobility Command] exceed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety requirements for commercial airlines."

Since it relies on such ultrasafe transportation options, NASA skips security precautions. Neither its space at Ellington Field in Houston nor the one at the Vnukovo airport in Moscow has been checked for security. And this despite the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, our retaliatory war against terrorists in the Sudan and Afghanistan, stepped-up security measures at home, and the State Department's September 1998 Worldwide Caution Advisory, urging Americans working or vacationing abroad to increase security and lessen their vulnerabilities.

Because Air Force One and Two planes carrying the president and vice president land at Vnukovo, NASA just assumed somebody must have checked out the airport. In fact, the Secret Service makes a one-time check ahead of Clinton or Gore arrivals, and otherwise NASA's assumption proved wrong. Nobody really knows what's up at the Moscow field, other than that it possesses an X-ray machine, which may or may not be run by a trained operator. Following the issuance of the report, NASA ended the charter flights.


Furby, The Spook
The National Security Agency has banned the popular mechanical pets that look like owls from its Fort Meade premises in Maryland for fear the toy might start "talking classified," according to the Associated Press. In an internal message to workers, the NSA issued a warning about the toy, which is embedded with a computer chip that allows it to utter 200 words— 100 in English and 100 in "Furbish": "Personally owned photographic, video and audio recording equipment are prohibited items. This includes toys, such as Furbys, with built-in recorders that repeat the audio with synthesized sound to mimic the original signal . . . . We are prohibited from introducing these items into NSA spaces. Those who have should contact their Staff Security Office for guidance."  

Research assistance: Ioanna Veleanu and Al Krebs


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