Senate Democratic Plumbers

Robert Novak
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Posted: Nov 29, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Chairman Orrin Hatch angered fellow Republicans last week by opening Senate Judiciary Committee Republican e-mails to investigators probing leaks of Democratic e-mails.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ordered full cooperation in the investigation of how Republicans obtained the committee's Democratic e-mails, which detailed the strategy for blocking President Bush's judicial nominations. Hatch responded with his order to open GOP e-mails to investigators. The Republican chairman also put one staffer on administrative leave.

The investigation was triggered by Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic floor leader who received some of the more important leaked e-mails. Rank-and-file Republican senators grumble that Frist and Hatch have permitted Durbin to obscure the substance of the e-mails, which showed left-wing special interest groups behind the filibusters preventing judicial confirmations.

THE GENERAL RISES

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark's influential New York liberal supporters, who were disappointed by the shaky start of his Democratic presidential campaign, were cheered by his performance in last Monday's Iowa debate.

Clark's backers felt that for the first time, the former NATO supreme commander effectively presented his military credentials. They view that as his strongest asset against the Democratic front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

A footnote: Rep. Richard Gephardt's operatives claim that the fight for the Democratic nomination is a two-man race in which Gephardt is the only viable alternative to Dean. To counter that claim, Clark's supporters admit he must finish better than third in either Iowa on Jan. 19 or New Hampshire on Jan. 27.

CHALLENGING DASCHLE?

National Republican strategists have grown more optimistic that former Rep. John Thune will run against Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota next year.

Thune was thought inclined not to run for the Senate again after being narrowly defeated last year by Sen. Tim Johnson. However, he has been convinced that the South Dakota Republican turnout will be much better in 2004, with George W. Bush heading the ticket, than in 2002.

National Democratic strategists consider South Dakota a cinch for Daschle's re-election unless Thune runs.

IMMIGRATION AND MEDICARE

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California conservative who often violates Republican discipline, supplied the decisive vote to pass the Medicare bill in the House after being misled on federal health care for illegal aliens.

As late as 3 a.m. last Saturday (two hours before the bill passed), ex-Ronald Reagan speechwriter Rohrabacher was ready to break party lines and vote against the bill because it expands health care for illegals. The Republican leadership won his vote by promising to put in the catchall appropriations bill a provision requiring hospitals to report to border control the names of illegals that they treat. When that massive spending measure became public Tuesday, however, Rohrabacher found no such provision.

A footnote: Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, one of the most conservative House members, voted for the bill Saturday after casting a "present" vote on the less liberal bill adopted by the House in June. Istook accepted the Republican leadership's claim that a more liberal measure would be passed if this one failed.

LIFE FOR MEDICARE

The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) is moving toward making a congressional vote for the Medicare bill a plus on the organization's anti-abortion rating for members of Congress.

An "advisory" sent out by NRLC Tuesday said it has "received assurances" that the bill's final version protects senior citizens from government-imposed rationing of health care, which it considers "a dangerous form of involuntary euthanasia." NRLC said it is checking the complicated bill itself before deciding whether to score the bill on its tally card.

The possibility of such a rating angers conservatives who voted against the Medicare bill and do not want that to become a stain on their perfect anti-abortion record. It particularly concerns pro-life Rep. Pat Toomey, who is challenging pro-choice Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Republican primary.