Inside Report: McCain on the spot

Robert Novak

8/4/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Chances of passing a "patients' bill of rights" that President Bush can sign may depend on the willingness of Sen. John McCain to forge a compromise in the Senate-House conference. Rep. Lindsey Graham, who led McCain's presidential primary campaign in South Carolina last year, is urging the senator to help out the president. Graham is a trial lawyer who supports HMO reform but feels the latest version of the bill agreed to by Bush and Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia constitutes progress and, with some changes, should be approved. A footnote: Although the Bush-McCain relationship has improved, the president and the senator still speak to each other only infrequently. McCain and Vice President Dick Cheney were relatively close in the past, but have had contact just twice this year. TEAMSTER GOP Democratic senators perceived a revised national political alignment when Teamsters union leaders were surprisingly passive about imposing restrictions on Mexican trucks. The Mexican truck question long has been high on the Teamster agenda. Consequently, Democrats were stunned when the union's leaders urged restraint on legislating the restrictions that were vigorously opposed by President Bush. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and construction union leaders collaborated with the Bush administration in successfully lobbying for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a key Republican strategist, sees this labor-GOP cooperation as the first dent in the solid facade of the labor-Democrat coalition. PROTECTING JIM JEFFORDS Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle has made it clear behind the scenes that he puts the highest priority on retaining dairy price-fixing in the Northeast: the pet program of Sen. James Jeffords. The Northeast Dairy Compact, pushed through by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott to protect Jeffords' 2000 re-election bid as a Republican in Vermont, expires Sept. 30. When Jeffords defected from the Republican Party to give the Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority, Daschle ended his previous opposition to the Northeast arrangement. In Tuesday's weekly Democratic caucus, Jeffords pleaded for help, and Daschle urged Democrats to restrain their criticism of the compact. Opposition, cutting across party lines, is led by two Democratic senators from Wisconsin, a key dairy state: Herb Kohl and Russell Feingold. GEPHARDT'S CORN House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt did not help his 2004 prospects in corn-growing Iowa's presidential caucuses when he urged a House vote on waiving use of ethanol in California. Gephardt, who won Iowa's 1988 caucuses, long has boosted ethanol use. But on July 20, he wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert that a waiver of California's reformulated gas requirements "deserves to be debated and voted on." That waiver, defeated by the House, would have undermined the Midwest's huge ethanol market. Donald Fischer, president of the Missouri Corn Growers, and Charles Kruse, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, wrote Gephardt on July 27 that "we are concerned" by his efforts. Kruse told this column that Gephardt's action was "a slap in the face to Missouri farmers." SENATE STRATEGIES Democratic strategists, trying to pin down the party's majority in the U.S. Senate, are pleading with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to oppose Republican Sen. Gordon Smith next year. Smith had not been considered vulnerable for re-election, and no Democrat other than Kitzhaber would be given a chance to defeat him. Although private Democratic polls show the governor with a substantial lead over Smith, Kitzhaber -- and his wife -- so far express no interest in coming to Washington. He is barred from seeking a third term for governor in 2002. A footnote: Sen. Jean Carnahan, appointed to the Senate from Missouri when her deceased husband was elected last year, has amazed political pros by raising over $2.3 million so far for her attempt to be elected to a full term in 2002. Former Rep. James Talent, the defeated candidate for governor of Missouri last year, last week announced an exploratory committee for the Senate race.