WASHINGTON -- Inside the Senate Republican establishment, there is a difference of opinion about Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Most are positive he will cross the aisle to the Democratic caucus if the GOP gains one seat Nov. 5 to recapture Senate control. A minority feels he also will make the switch if the Republicans pick up two seats. But both opinions may be wrong.
"I call it senseless," Chafee told me, in characterizing predictions of his certain defection. It was the only irritation shown by the soft-spoken 49-year-old freshman senator during a conversation last week, after he cast the only Senate Republican vote against the Iraq war resolution. While he does not guarantee Republican fealty to the end of time, he expressed no anxiety about remaining with his ancestral party. "I'm very comfortable here," he said.
Comfortable or not, Linc Chafee is the Senate's political wild card. How far he is from today's Republican mainstream is emphasized less by his dissent on Iraq than on the Homeland Security bill. That raises the specter of Chafee's defection, maintaining Democratic control of the Senate even if the GOP defies historical precedent by gaining seats in the mid-term election.
Anxiety was heightened by Chafee's siding with government employee unions against President Bush over the new Department of Homeland Security. Within the last two weeks, he apparently had reached agreement with the Republican leadership on a compromise with moderate Democratic Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. That produced momentary optimism in the Republican cloakroom about Chafee's future.
However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said no. The compromise did not satisfy union leaders. Chafee confirmed this account to me, but did not complain about Daschle. To Republicans, Chafee is entirely too forgiving of Democrats and entirely too chummy with them.
GOP senators who admired and liked the late Sen. John Chafee discovered that the son, appointed to the Senate when his father died in 1999, is a very different kind of person. The elder Chafee was well to the left of the party's mainstream and lost his leadership position by vote of his colleagues. Still, John Chafee, a Marine in two wars and Richard Nixon's secretary of the Navy, was a Republican to the core. Nobody ever imagined him defecting.
From the time of the younger Chafee's election in 2000 while George W. Bush was blown out in overwhelmingly Democratic Rhode Island, speculation rose about his becoming a Democrat. It was not only Chafee voting against the Bush tax cuts, but spending too much time talking to Democrats. To Republicans, he seemed a flower child, in comparison to his warrior father.
Obsessive fear that Chafee would defect began when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont transformed Washington's power realities by abandoning the Republicans and joining the Democratic caucus. Daschle made offers, and Chafee stirred the pot by telling Rhode Island interviewers: "Never say never."
Republican threats to Chafee for voting irregularities -- never fulfilled -- disappeared when Jeffords defected. While party leaders are increasingly pessimistic about Chafee staying a Republican, they have treated him gently over the last year. They reject Jeffords's complaints that he left the party because he was treated so badly, but are oh-so-careful with Chafee.
Unlike Jeffords, Chafee has no complaints. "I'm not uncomfortable being a Republican," he told me, adding that he has no unmet demands. He denied that he is always seeking 80 to 20 Senate votes (with the 20, of course, being conservatives) -- a pattern that would turn back the Republican clock to a pre-Reagan ideology. Still, Chafee said, "I work hard at consensus. I try to be civil with everyone."
Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia is Chafee's Democratic counterpart in an otherwise polarized Senate, collaborating with Republicans on such party-aligned issues as taxes and homeland security. Miller considers himself an unlikely candidate for defection because of his long political career as a Democrat, and he suspects that Chafee is similarly a born-and-bred Republican. Nevertheless, Miller at age 70 speculates that he might cross the aisle if he were 20 years younger. Chafee is 20 years younger, and in time, a caucus where he does not seem to belong could prove intolerable.