State Journal Register
March 21, 2005
Obama seeks middle ground
Senator sometimes votes with GOP
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - In one of his first Senate votes, Illinois' freshman Democrat Barack Obama helped Republicans give President Bush the first major victory of his second term: a legal overhaul designed to discourage multimillion dollar class-action lawsuits by shifting more of them to federal court.
More recently, Obama held himself out as open to working with Republicans before ultimately siding with fellow Democrats and one Republican to defeat Bush's proposal to give power plants more time to reduce their air-polluting emissions.
In almost three months in the Senate, Obama has indicated he's not always going to march in lock step with the Democratic leadership and that he's open to working with Republicans on some issues.
Obama appears to be cementing the reputation he had in the state Senate as a pragmatic liberal and, some say, signaling a desire to appeal to his new more moderate statewide and possible national constituencies.
"He wants to be thoughtful, not knee-jerk on the Democratic side," said Ron Walters, a politics professor at the University of Maryland.
To be cast as a moderate Democrat is an advantage for any new senator who is moving from representing a liberal, urban state Senate district to representing a diverse rural and urban state such as Illinois. It would serve Obama well whether seeking re-election for the Senate or in a quest for higher office, as many have speculated.
While Obama has downplayed such speculation, "at the same time this is indication that he's trying to build a viable record that will reach a moderate, mainstream broadly based population if he does decide to run," Walters said.
State Sen. Steven Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, who lost in the Senate Republican primary, said Obama's first moves in the Senate are intended to send a message.
"I would argue that what he's doing is not accidental by any means," Rauschenberger said. "I think he knows that the best way he can be effective for the state of Illinois is to be in play."
In addition to the class-action bill, Obama also split with fellow Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who is the Democrat's chief vote-counter, when he voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state.
Obama has sided with his Democratic leadership to oppose recent budget and bankruptcy bills on the Senate floor, and he voted, along with Durbin, against Alberto Gonzales, Bush's attorney general pick.
If his vote for the Republican-endorsed class-action bill made him less predictable in some people's view - Obama himself thinks that's a good thing.
"I hope that continues," Obama said. "What I'm trying to do is call them as I see them and not be pigeonholed in terms of right or left or center. I'm just trying to evaluate each piece of legislation based on what I think is best for the constituents back home."
The House and Senate cleared the class-action legislation last month, and Bush signed it into law Feb. 18. It shifts many large class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts. Supporters said it was needed to discourage lawyers from "forum-shopping," or filing suits in state court jurisdictions where plaintiffs often win large awards. The president stopped in Madison County, Ill., during his campaign last year to highlight its reputation for such suits.
The class-action bill already had enough Democratic supporters to make it filibuster-proof, and Democratic Leader Harry Reid decided not to fight the bill, which he labeled "anti-consumer."
Obama supported a number of Democratic attempts to amend the bill before voting for its final passage.
"In the case of the class-action bill, it was very much interpreted through the lens of the Democratic trial lawyers versus the Republican Chamber of Commerce," Obama said. "In all these bills, what I'm trying to do is read the bills, make some thoughtful suggestions about what I think are the right compromises to make and knowing that I'm not going to be considered ideologically pure - because I'm not ideological, I'm here to try to solve problems."
Opponents including consumer groups and trial lawyers, traditional Democratic allies, said the law will help corporations avoid responsibility in cases where a large number of people might have been harmed in a small way.
While Illinois Trial Lawyers Association President Kevin Conway opposed the bill, he doesn't blame Obama for voting for it.
"No matter how Sen. Obama voted, when you have people well before the vote lining up and saying they have 60-some senators, you're not going to make a difference," Conway said.
Having practiced civil rights law and participated in class-action suits, Obama said: "I had a pretty good sense of the degree which this would prevent meritorious lawsuits from being filed and based on my best judgment I didn't believe that they would."
On the air pollution bill dubbed "clear skies" by the Bush administration, Obama had expressed at the first of four Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that he wanted to find a "middle ground" on the issue.
That signaled to labor groups and Illinois' struggling coal industry that Obama might be persuaded to support the administration bill, which they argued would help retain jobs in southern Illinois.
Despite his strong pro-environment record in the state Senate, Obama was seen as a potential swing vote. Ultimately, Obama sided with the committee's Democrats and one Republican to kill the Bush proposal on a 9-to-9 vote.
Obama said he's committed to working for economic development in southern Illinois, but he said there was no evidence that the administration's bill would help the coal industry.
"It was a false promise. And I'm not going to endanger the health of children in southern Illinois and the rest of the state for such false promises," Obama said.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said the vote "represented an interesting challenge for him, someone who wanted to be seen as a more realistic Democrat as much concerned about jobs and industry as he was about satisfying the environmental lobby."
In both of those votes - on class action and "clear skies" - Obama said he probably alienated some supporters.
"My strong belief is that if I spend the next six years doing what I think is right, that at the end of those six years, people will think I'm doing a good job," he said.
Durbin said it's wrong to think they would always vote alike.
"I think people started off with the mistaken belief that we would be identical in our approach to issues ... but we're going to disagree," Durbin said. "I just know that we will find much more on which to agree than disagree."
John Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, said Obama's early votes aren't a marked departure from his record in the Illinois Senate, where he was also known to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans.
"Even with that very urban liberal district, he was still a pragmatist trying to get things done and trying to get solutions to problems," said Jackson, who added that he sees Obama aspiring to be a "nuts and bolts" senator in the tradition of Alan Dixon and Paul Simon as opposed to the maverick reputation earned by Obama's Republican predecessor, Peter Fitzgerald, who publicly sparred with his own party leaders.
While it's too early to say for sure, most political observers predict it won't be the last time Obama parts ways with his party.
"I think there are going to be times where he will break ranks with Democrats," said Norman Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute. "I don't think he is starting out deliberately to be a maverick. And, I don't think you'll find him on many occasions out there on a limb when the rest of his colleagues are somewhere else.
"But I also would think that if I were Harry Reid or the ranking Democrat on the committee that he's on, that I would want to talk to him, figure out where he is coming from, listen to his concerns, and not just assume that he's going to be with them on these votes," Ornstein said.