Pull a Jeffords -- Please!
Nobody voted for Trent Lott on Election Day, but he is set to become leader of the United States Senate -- again, as he was for a short time in 2000.
Thoughtful Americans who want common-sense public policies should fear the re-ascension of Mr. Lott to the post of Senate Majority Leader. He promises a future of oil and gas drilling in wildlife reserves, clear-cutting in national forests, limiting women's reproductive choices, protecting his corporate cronies and tax policy that favors the wealthy over working families.
Under our system of elections, it does not matter if most voters disagree with Mr. Lott. What matters is simply whether a majority of senators vote for him in early January, when the 108th Congress convenes. If the Democratic incumbent wins a runoff election in Louisiana in early December, the new Senate will have 52 Republicans, 47 Democrats and one Independent -- enough votes to ensure victory for Mr. Lott and his agenda.
However, there is a hardy handful of Republican senators who have more in common with former Republican, now Independent Senator Jim Jeffords than they do with Trent Lott. Senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Olympia Snowe of Maine have solid moderate credentials that put them out of step with the GOP leadership.
Voters for Choice ranks all three as "pro-choice," meaning they voted to support reproductive rights at least 80 percent of the time. Each senator scores in the middle rank when it comes to supporting labor, according to rankings by the AFL-CIO. The ACLU gave each senator a 60 percent rating for support of civil liberties in the 107th Congress.
On environmental votes tracked by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Snowe voted green 72 percent of the time, Specter 52 percent, and Chafee 68 percent. All three voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which promises to be a big fight again in the next Congress. By contrast, the senators who are expected to chair key environmental committees under Lott's leadership have an average LCV rating of 10, meaning that 90 percent of the time they vote against the environment.
These moderates will fight to move their colleagues toward more thoughtful, mainstream positions, but in Lott's Senate they will be doomed to failure. So they have a choice to make.
They can put party loyalty over their constituents' interests and those of a majority of Americans, overlook their own values, hold their noses, and support Trent Lott for Majority Leader. If they do, they can still vote against drilling in the Arctic and against restrictions on choice -- but those votes won't matter. They will be empty gestures easily overcome by Lott and his followers.
But if the moderates want to make a real vote of conscience, if they want to stand above partisanship and represent the great American political middle, there is another choice they can make: Chafee, Snowe and Specter can pull a Jeffords: Leave the GOP, become Independents, and caucus with the Democrats, which will give the Democrats control of the Senate.
They should switch -- not for any love of Democrats, but for the majority of Americans who favor environmental protection, reproductive choice, and other moderate policies. In a Lott-run Senate, moderate voices will be marginal at best. Switching, even if that only means becoming Independents, will not only give them a voice, it will give them leadership positions, since they should demand and receive committee chairmanships in return for giving Democrats control.
Andrew Jackson once said that "One man with courage makes a majority." Today it takes two and perhaps three men and women (depending on the outcome of that Louisiana runoff).
Of course, those brave enough to act on their beliefs will be subject to ferocious attack from their colleagues and the vicious pundits of the right. They will be accused of misleading voters for having run previously as Republicans -- as if values, beliefs and votes are less important than party label. Campaign contributions from special interests will plummet and the White House will seek candidates to defeat them in the next election.
Will they switch? It's a long shot, of course. It would be naïve to think otherwise.
But citizens of good conscience should let these senators know that they admire independence and freedom of action, that there still is room in American politics for those who stand up when the easy thing is to stay seated. And it cuts both ways: Citizens should also let these senators know that they will be held accountable for the actions of the Senate leaders that they put in power.
Michael Kieschnick is president and co-founder of Working Assets Long Distance. You can send these senators a message at WorkingAssets.com.