D'amato's Barbs Could Turn Into Boomerangs

Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) won the nickname Senator Pothole thanks to an uncanny ability to deliver the goodies for his constituents. But with a Democrat in the White House, the loquacious Long Island lawmaker is earning himself a new moniker: Senator Potshot.

D'Amato has staked out a role as the GOP's partisan point man. His unrelenting attacks on the White House--from the First Lady's lucrative commodities trades to the President's $20 billion Mexican-peso bailout--are aimed at further weakening the Administration and firming up the Republicans' hold on the Senate. And by taking the lead, D'Amato, head of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's Presidential steering committee, lets the Kansas Republican stay above the fray.

NERVOUS INVESTORS. But the three-term senator's surprise move on Mar. 30 to make U.S. aid to Mexico conditional on Congress' approval risks alienating fellow Republicans, crucial Democrats on the Banking Committee he heads, and the Wall Streeters who in recent years have showered him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations.

D'Amato apparently is playing to populist resentment of the peso rescue. "It's working, middle-class Americans bailing out wealthy, sophisticated investors," he rails. The gambit backfired. Senate Republicans and big Wall Street investors were unnerved, worrying that D'Amato's move could worsen Mexico's crisis. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich panned the tack as "a big mistake." Groans Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.): "It's dumb politically, because the President can point to a Republican-controlled Congress if things go wrong."

And D'Amato's barefisted tactics have infuriated some Democrats, whose bipartisan support he will need later this year for major legislation such as bank reform or a possible overhaul of the shaky thrift insurance fund. For now, many feel the New Yorker is playing politics on the Mexico issue. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) gripes that D'Amato's only motive is "to embarrass the President."

D'Amato's broadsides have kept the Administration off balance, and there's no sign he'll let up. He tortured Clintonites at Whitewater hearings last summer and is expected to resume them later this year. His introduction of two bills to bar Iran trade sent the State Dept. scrambling to toughen its stance. Plus, his panel could stage bruising confirmation hearings for Clinton's nominee to replace retiring Federal Reserve Board Governor John P. LaWare--as well as the President's choice for Fed chairman when Alan Greenspan's term expires next March.

Back in New York, "Al the Pal" has built a well-oiled political machine. He has lined up state GOP support behind Dole's Presidential bid--with his protege, New York Governor George E. Pataki, leading the parade. Now he's solidifying his base inside the Beltway. When not slamming Clinton, he's drumming up campaign dollars as the new chief of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, raising an impressive $6.5 million since January. "D'Amato is a force to be reckoned with," says GOP strategist Kathleen Cooney Severin.

Still, D'Amato's penchant for controversy is risky. He barely squeaked back into office in 1992, and his New York approval ratings have dropped to 33% from a peak of 63% in 1986. Antics such as his mocking of Lance Ito, the judge in the O.J. Simpson case, with a fake Japanese accent on an Apr. 4 radio show don't help. "It's hard to move your poll numbers up again when your persona is as well-defined as D'Amato's," says Marist Institute pollster Lee M. Miringoff. Indeed, to raise those numbers as part of the Washington leadership, he'll have to produce results, not just sound bites.

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