Coleman Bucks White House on Drilling

By E.J. Kessler

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
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Minnesota’s new senator, Norm Coleman, one of only two Jewish Republicans in the Senate, raised eyebrows last week when he bucked the party line to vote against President Bush’s proposal to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Coleman is considered something of a protégé of Bush and his chief political strategist Karl Rove, who championed his candidacy over that of a more conservative Republican rival, so his vote prompted talk that he was pioneering a course independent from the White House.

But in a telephone interview with the Forward, Coleman insisted that he did not receive any pressure from the White House to toe its line on the vote on the refuge, known to insiders by the acronym ANWR (pronounced “Anwar”).

“I didn’t get a call” from Vice President Dick Cheney on the vote, he said. “I got very little pressure on Anwar. I knew what the [White House] position was, but I didn’t want to take pressure off developing [renewable sources of energy, such as ethanol]. That’s where the future is, and the future of my state.”

What’s more, Coleman said, reports that he is set to defy Bush on his cherished dividend tax cut are also unfounded. “I am a tax cutter,” he said. “I support the dividend piece,” noting that he did not support a provision put forth by some Republican moderates, such as Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, cutting the dividend tax cut in half. “I’ll vote for the whole package,” Coleman said of Bush’s tax scheme.

Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, Minn., said his approach to both Anwar and the dividend tax cut stems from a “pragmatic” as opposed to ideological stance.

“I’m an urban mayor,” he said. “I’m conservative on fiscal issues, and even on some social issues, but I’m pro-affirmative action. I’m just pragmatic. It’s tough to be categorized. I’ll caucus with conservatives; I’ll caucus with progressives.”

Coleman’s approach is getting mixed reviews in Minnesota, which like many states is facing a pronounced budget deficit.

Steve Silberfarb, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, praised Coleman for his vote on drilling. “I think Senator Coleman is probably wise to stick to campaign promises on Anwar and show that he is his own person,” he said.

Silberfarb said that Bush’s tax plan poses a trickier political issue for Coleman. “We [in Minnesota] are facing over a $4 billion budget deficit. The governor has said ‘no tax increases.’ It’s one thing to raise taxes, another thing to cut more taxes.… It would have an unpredictable impact on Minnesota at a time when we can predict in the foreseeable future, deep budget cuts and lots of pain across the board.”

Coleman has also assumed the chairmanship of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, which last year looked into the Enron scandal and the conduct of the Wall Street firms that financed the energy giant. Coleman said he is looking at a range of different subjects upon which to focus the work of the subcommittee, which does not have a permanent brief. He said he would make his decision within four weeks. The subjects he is considering include hospital safety, Al Qaeda’s ties to Paraguay, homeland security, the FBI’s effectiveness and corruption in organized labor. One topic he is not considering, however, as some had hoped, is Cheney’s ties to the energy industry.

Cheney “has been investigated,” Coleman said. “We’re way past that. This [subcommittee] is not about grinding political axes.”






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