Santorum’s Senate Clashes Raise Ex-Colleagues’ Leadership Doubts

Rick Santorum’s opening act as a freshman senator in 1995 was an attempt to strip the title from the Republican chairman of the appropriations committee, which determines government spending.

It was the start of a 12-year Senate career that featured the evolution of Santorum from an upstart newcomer to a member of the leadership, a transformation that required him at times to compromise his conservative ideology to fulfill political ambitions.

Along the way, Santorum built a bipartisan roster of critics. Only one of his former Senate colleagues has endorsed his Republican presidential bid -- and former Ohio Senator Mike DeWine did that only after endorsing two other contenders first. Twenty-seven former and current senators have endorsed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

“He came into the Senate at full throttle,” said former Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who served with Santorum and recalled the then-freshman’s effort to remove Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield from the appropriations committee.

“That’s very unusual for a sitting senator to try to strip another senator of a full committee chairmanship,” said Dorgan. “He lost a lot of friends.”

Taxpayer-Subsidized Haircuts

John Brabender, one of Santorum’s closest advisers, said the campaign hasn’t asked for additional endorsements from his former colleagues and said that Santorum may have lost popularity with his peers because he tried to change the way Congress did business. For instance, Santorum pressed to end taxpayer-subsidized haircuts and meals for members of Congress.

“It was a small thing, but we couldn’t change Washington until we changed the culture of showing senators and congressmen it’s not their money, it’s your money,” said Brabender. “When you do that type of thing, a lot of your colleagues aren’t holding the elevator door open for you anymore.”

As he ascended the leadership ranks, in 2001 becoming the chamber’s third-ranking Republican, Santorum was a leading advocate for many of Republican President George W. Bush’s biggest spending programs, including an expanded prescription drug program for seniors, which are now anathema to the anti-tax Tea Party grassroots and fodder for attacks from Romney.

‘Good Rick and Bad Rick’

“We have good Rick and bad Rick,” said Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who served as a Republican aide in the House in the 1980s.

“Bad Rick is hyper-partisan, nasty, prickly, hyper- defensive and given to strange musings about social issues,” Pitney said. “Then there’s the good Rick, who is very capable of serious bipartisan legislating” -- such as Santorum’s leadership on the Combating Autism Act of 2006, he said.

Santorum was elected to the U.S. House in 1990, where he became one of the “Gang of Seven” freshman who fanned the House bank scandal, which involved members overdrawing their House checking accounts without penalty.

Pennsylvania voters sent him to the Senate in 1994, where he focused initially on such spending issues as pushing for a balanced-budget amendment, reducing farm subsidies and tightening government welfare benefits for the poor.

Clash With Hatfield

Santorum’s clash with Hatfield, which also involved West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, occurred in his first month in office. Santorum urged his Republican colleagues to remove Hatfield after the Oregon senator voted against a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution that the Senate newcomer supported.

In his 2000 re-election campaign, Santorum softened his image as an impertinent freshman, emphasizing his work with Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, then a Democrat who is now an independent, on community-renewal projects and embracing the “compassionate conservative” faith-based messages of the man at the top of the party ticket, Bush. After the election, he was elevated to chairman of the Republican Conference, where he oversaw the Republican caucus communications efforts.

By the time he was defeated in his 2006 re-election bid, Santorum was better known for his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights. In 2005, he helped force a vote in the Senate to have a judge intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman living in a vegetative state whose parents objected to her husband’s instruction to doctors to remove her feeding tube.

‘Unyielding’ Attitude

“It wasn’t the stances he took as much as the very unyielding and sometimes kind of disdainful attitude he had towards his colleagues,” said Steve Bell, an aide to former Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico. “He was not part of the folks who tried to get things done.”

Republican Alan Simpson, a former Wyoming senator who supports Romney, said Santorum upbraided him for voting against a 1995 bill prohibiting a form of late-term abortion.

“He called me a baby killer,” said Simpson, who supported the procedure in cases to clear the birth canal of a failed pregnancy. “He was very, very rigid, very rigid, and you can see that look in his eye right now,” he said. As president, Santorum would “impose these beliefs with zeal,” said Simpson.

Kennedy Demands Apology

In 2005, Santorum so enraged Senator Edward Kennedy that the Massachusetts Democrat took to the floor in an unusual personal attack. Kennedy called on Santorum to apologize to the people of Boston after writing a column linking the region’s culture to the sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church.

“It is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm,” Santorum wrote in a July 2002 column for Catholic Online.

“Rick has a set of core values, he’s a hard charger,” said DeWine, who endorsed Romney and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty before switching to Santorum on Feb. 18.

“For some senators, that may have offended them. The culture of the Senate is a different culture. I think the average American would be happy with someone who would shake up that culture,” he said in an interview.

Dan Schnur, an aide on Arizona Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the Los Angeles-based University of Southern California, said, “This type of criticism caused a tremendous amount of damage to Gingrich’s candidacy, but it might not have as much impact for Santorum. He talks about how he came to Washington to shake things up. The fact that other politicians don’t speak well of him may hurt him less.”

Developing Messages

As a Senate leader, Santorum was responsible for developing persuasive political messages around and passing the Bush agenda, which is now opposed by anti-government spending activists in the Republican Party.

Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” education bill expanded the federal government’s role in state programs. In an Arizona debate last night, Santorum said he regrets that decision because it increased federal spending.

“When you are part of a team, you sometimes take one for the team, for the leader,” Santorum said. “I made a mistake.”

In 2003, Santorum parted with other anti-tax Republican senators such as McCain, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Trent Lott of Mississippi to support Bush’s push to expand Medicare prescription drug coverage. He also used his rising clout to press for millions of dollars in taxpayer money to finance special projects in Pennsylvania, a practice commonly known as earmarking.

‘Big-Spending Habits’

“His record is plagued by the big-spending habits that Republicans adopted during the Bush years of 2001 to 2006,” according to a research paper by the Club for Growth, a nonpartisan Washington-based group that tracks government spending.

Santorum and other Republicans voted for tax cuts and new spending simply “because it was part of the president’s agenda,” said Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, a Washington-based group that advocates for a balanced budget. “The period from 2001 to 2008 before the recession was the most fiscally irresponsible period in governing.”

Simpson, who helped draft a deficit reduction proposal as part of President Barack Obama’s debt commission, defended Santorum on the issue of seeking special funding for home state projects. “All of us were bringing home the bacon,” he said.

Labor Votes

Santorum cast occasional votes at odds with Republican orthodoxy in order to appeal to his Pennsylvania constituents, which included labor union members and senior citizens.

Among those votes was his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and a striker replacement measure. He voted for some minimum wage increases in the House and the Senate.

Santorum’s labor positions have become an issue in Michigan, where Romney has nicknamed his rival “big labor’s favorite senator.”

In a Jan. 15 Fox interview, Santorum defended his prior positions, saying they merely reflected his constituents.

“I believe the state has the right, if they want to have a union-dues requirement, that the state should be able to do that,” he said. “As a president, I have a very different point of view.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Heidi Przybyla in Washington at hprzybyla@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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