After promising during his campaign to change the tone in Washington, President Bush took office last January hoping to reduce the partisan strife that had paralyzed much of the Clinton era. Over the year that followed, Bush regularly won the support of a handful of Democrats in both the Senate and the House, and he built a somewhat broader bipartisanship for his two showcase proposals-tax cuts and education reform. Efforts at consensus-building also enjoyed limited success immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But overall, National Journal’s annual congressional vote ratings for 2001 reveal little change from previous voting patterns. House members and Senators continued to vote predominantly along partisan lines on most major issues.
In the Senate, a centrist coalition was evident last year, but it did not reach as deeply into either party as some have claimed. Constituting the Senate’s ideological center, according to the vote ratings, were only six Republicans, three Democrats, and one independent-Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, whose decision last May to abandon the GOP put the chamber under Democratic control. Even that limited degree of bipartisanship was far-reaching when compared with previous years: In 2000, the ratings showed only two Senate Republicans whose average scores were more liberal than those of any Democratic Senator. And in 1999, all Democrats were on one side of the Senate’s ideological divide, and all Republicans were on the other.
Voting patterns changed even less in the House, where leaders continued to encourage a drawing of partisan lines. The House members with the most-clear-cut centrist voting pattern included roughly the same dozen “usual suspects” from each party as during the previous two years-notably, liberal Republican Reps. Constance A. Morella of Maryland and Jim Leach of Iowa, and conservative Democratic Reps. Ken Lucas of Kentucky and Ralph M. Hall of Texas.
In both chambers, party leaders continued to position themselves toward opposing ends of the ideological spectrum. In the House, for instance, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas was one of six Republicans with perfect conservative scores. And Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who took over recently as the minority whip, wasn’t far behind the House’s most-liberal members. Similarly, in the Senate, the vote ratings of Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., ranked among their most-liberal and most-conservative colleagues, respectively.
These are some of the highlights of National Journal’s congressional vote ratings for 2001. The scores, which have been compiled each year since 1981, show where lawmakers rank relative to one another in the Senate and House on a conservative-to-liberal scale, based on their votes in each of three issue areas: economic, social, and foreign. The scores are determined by a computer-assisted calculation that ranks members from one end of the spectrum to the other, based on key votes-42 in the Senate and 57 in the House-that National Journal reporters and editors selected.
For example, the results show that on social issues, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had a liberal score of 33 and a conservative score of 59. This means that he was more liberal than 33 percent of other Senators on social issues and more conservative than 59 percent; he tied the remaining 8 percent. On foreign issues, McCain’s liberal score was 7 and his conservative score was 72, placing him among the more-conservative Senators.
The two Senators with perfect conservative scores were Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina-two aging GOP icons whose influence has diminished in recent years because of their health problems. Both are retiring at the end of this year. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas-whose scores as the most-conservative Senator in 2000 have made him the target of Democratic criticism in his re-election bid this year-moved toward the center of Senate Republicans last year. His composite score left 26 other Senators with more-conservative ratings.
A single Senator was at the other end of the spectrum, with perfect liberal scores: Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who this year faces a tough re-election challenge in which his voting record will likely be an issue. Interestingly, four of the next seven most-liberal Senators are newly elected Democrats. They are Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who won an open seat, plus Maria Cantwell of Washington, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, each of whom defeated a Republican incumbent in November 2000. Cantwell, in particular, had portrayed herself as a moderate “New Democrat” during her 2000 campaign.
Among the Senate’s centrists, Jeffords’s 2001 ratings changed little from his ratings in recent years. His scores were sandwiched between those of Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, the two most-liberal Senate Republicans. Specter was the only Republican whose scores were in the liberal half of the Senate in each of the three issue areas. Only three Democrats were more conservative than Jeffords. They were Zell Miller of Georgia-the only Democrat to fall into the conservative half of the Senate in every issue area-plus John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Miller and Nelson were first elected in 2000.
The Senate ratings also shed light on the performance of various past and prospective presidential candidates. McCain continued his move toward the Senate’s center, especially on economic issues, as he did during his 2000 presidential bid. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee, ranked toward the conservative wing of Senate Democrats, especially on foreign-policy issues. Among other potential Democratic presidential contenders for 2004, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts leaned toward the liberal end of the Senate, slightly ahead of Daschle, while John Edwards of North Carolina was nearly tied with Lieberman.
Meanwhile, Senate newcomer Hillary Rodham Clinton ranked virtually in the middle of the chamber’s Democrats. Her composite liberal score of 76 was near that of fellow New Yorker Charles E. Schumer.
On a regional basis, the 13 Democratic Senators from the East had the most-liberal average rating, while the 13 Republicans from the South were the most conservative; the differences between those two groups were the strongest on economic issues. The nine Southern Democrats and the nine Eastern Republicans had average scores that placed them closest to the Senate’s center, especially on foreign-policy issues.
It should be noted that last year the Senate cast fewer votes than usual on divisive social and foreign-policy issues, presumably because of the chamber’s razor-thin margin. In stark contrast to the House, as well as to its own recent past, the Senate agenda included not a single vote on abortion or crime issues. Although between 15 and 20 Senate foreign-policy votes typically are selected for computing National Journal’s ratings, only seven votes in 2001 were suitable. The smallness of that sample accounts for the many tie scores in the results.
In the House, each of the six Republicans with a perfect conservative score in the three issue areas-with the exception of DeLay-has served less than a decade, and all hail either from the South or from west of the Mississippi River. Among House Democrats, eight received a perfect liberal score on every set of issues. They included four Californians, two New Yorkers, and two others from the Northeast.
Two of the House’s most-independent spirits posted significant new marks. The scores of James A. Traficant Jr. of Ohio were the most conservative of any House Democrat. Traficant-who faces a federal corruption trial this month-still calls himself a Democrat, even though his party stripped him of his committee assignments after he voted for J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., for Speaker a year ago. (Hall of Texas, who had been rated as the most-conservative House Democrat in recent years of the ratings, and Lucas were the only other Democrats to receive a conservative score in each of the three issue areas.)
Ron Paul of Texas, whose libertarian approach to governing has increasingly made him an iconoclast, trailed only Morella and Leach among the most-liberal House Republicans. The nay-saying Paul repeatedly votes against bills, from defense spending to education reform proposals, that most Republicans view as routine.
At the ideological center of the House was Sue W. Kelly, R-N.Y., whose composite score of precisely 50 meant that there were as many liberals to one side of her in the chamber as there were conservatives to the other side. The other House members closest to the center were Democrats William Lipinski of Illinois and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, and Republicans Michael N. Castle of Delaware and Benjamin A. Gilman of New York.
Among the 28 House Republican freshmen, five-Todd Akin of Missouri, John Culberson of Texas, Mike Pence of Indiana, and Eric Cantor and Edward Schrock of Virginia-were among the 20 most-conservative members. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Robert Simmons of Connecticut were the most-liberal House GOP freshmen. Among the 13 House Democratic freshmen, Brad Carson of Oklahoma, Jim Matheson of Utah, and Mike Ross of Arkansas were closest to the House’s center. Betty McCollum of Minnesota and Mike Honda and Hilda Solis, both of California, were the most liberal from that group.
In regional terms, the 72 Southern Republicans comprised the House’s most-conservative group, and the 50 Western Democrats were the most liberal. The contrast between their scores was most pronounced on social issues. Toward the center of the House were the 39 Eastern Republicans and the 52 Southern Democrats.
Richard E. Cohen National Journal