Panel’s Ranking Member Lugar Is Veteran Pragmatist

Posted January 15, 2010 at 5:35pm

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) is the most senior Member of his caucus, a one-time presidential candidate and a bipartisan lawmaker who is often lauded for his pragmatic approach.

But the man once rumored to be a likely pick for secretary of State or vice president carries an extremely low profile that is almost entirely restricted to his work on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he was chairman from 1985 to 1987 and again from 2003 to 2007.

Given his ability to work with Democrats on the committee, both when he was chairman and now in his role as ranking member, Lugar seems like a throwback to the days when the Senate was a lot more bipartisan.

“That’s a committee where being pragmatic and measured has its advantages,— a GOP leadership aide said, adding that Lugar’s “lack of spotlight gives him an ability almost to be taken more seriously because everyone knows what he says, he believes.—

Lugar’s voting record is reliably conservative, despite his penchant for bipartisan deal-making. That reputation, the six-term lawmaker says, is a carefully crafted one.

“I think both Chairman [John] Kerry (D-Mass.) and I share the view that even in other committees and issues the Senate is dealing with, the best policy is for our committee to have as close to consensus and unanimity in the committee,— Lugar said in an interview last week. “It’s important the impression be one of as much solidarity as possible.—

Some Republicans, however, complain that Lugar’s mild-mannered approach leaves the party without a strong voice on foreign policy issues.

“He can be stand-offish at times and doesn’t use opportunities to make news,— an aide to a conservative GOP Member said. “He’s not like Jesse Helms.—

The late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the panel’s most senior Republican member for years and the chairman from 1995 until he retired at the end of 2002, “used the Foreign Relations Committee to push conservative principles,— the GOP aide noted.

Helle Dale, a senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, said the posture of Republicans on the committee is at least partly a reflection of their current political standing.

“I think the Republicans at this point in time feel so outnumbered that you don’t really have the initiative,— she said. “You don’t have someone like Helms — there aren’t people there that are going to rock the boat.—

Lugar was a bitter rival with Helms, who in many ways was Lugar’s opposite. While Helms held up Democratic nominees and served as a GOP mouthpiece on foreign policy during the Clinton years, Lugar has regularly maintained that the Senate should support a president’s Cabinet nominations in nearly all cases and enjoys a collegial relationship with President Barack Obama. Indeed, Lugar said he has served as “a sounding board— for Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, a former Foreign Relations chairman, on nuclear proliferation issues and this year’s reauthorization of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

“There has not been a president since Jimmy Carter that has not been very active in seeking Dick Lugar’s advice,— said former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a Foreign Relations veteran.

The bipartisanship exhibited on the committee often extends beyond Kerry and Lugar. With the exception of Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), there are no recognized Republican bomb-throwers on the panel.

“Obviously, Lugar makes it easy, but you have [Sen. Bob] Corker, [Sen. Johnny] Isakson — these are good guys,— Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) said of the Republicans from Tennessee and Georgia, respectively. “You have a committee that really leaves partisan concerns at the water’s edge.—

Kerry and Lugar introduced legislation in May that would support Obama’s Pakistan strategy by sending $1.5 billion a year in economic aid over the next five years to Pakistan. Like Obama, Lugar believes the prison housing terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed, although Lugar maintained that a more detailed plan must emerge before that can happen.

“Dick really is the constant factor in the cooperative, bipartisan spirit that permeates the committee,— Kerry said of his Republican counterpart. “I’ve seen him take fire for working to advance some of these issues.—

“I know we’d never have gotten our Pakistan bill passed if he wasn’t willing to stand up and lead,— Kerry added.

Lugar’s crowning legislative achievement remains creating a nuclear nonproliferation program with former Sen. Sam Nunn (R-Ga.), and his top focus within the committee remains nuclear disarmament. Lugar largely stayed mum on climate change, an issue that Kerry focused a considerable amount of attention on last year as both a co-sponsor of sweeping legislation with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and later as the leader in “tripartisan— negotiations with Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Despite Kerry’s focus on the issue, Lugar said, “I don’t think it has deflected interest or enthusiasm for the committee.—

“It’s a subject that I’m interested in, but not in the cap-and-trade language,— Lugar said. “It could very well be that energy security issues will come before the committee during the year, and I would not be adverse to that.—