By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Come January, the Senate will have a new Mr. Conservative: Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky.
When the 108th Congress convenes Jan. 7, the Southgate Republican is set to become its most conservative senator, thanks to the retirement or defeat of the few Republicans who were farther to the right in vote rankings.
Mr. Bunning said he wasn't sure he would classify himself as the most conservative, but "I'm in the top 10. I think I reflect Kentucky's views very clearly. I think 75 percent of the people in Kentucky agree with me."
The 71-year-old former baseball star, who is up for re-election in 2004, credits his conservatism to the Jesuits at Cincinnati's Xavier University, where he graduated in 1953.
"They taught you to be self-reliant. Depend on no one but work with everyone. You are responsible for your actions," Mr. Bunning said.
A look at Sen. Jim Bunning's voting record:|
Use of force against Iraq: Yes
Ban late-term abortion: Yes
Ten-year, $180 billion farm subsidy: No
Eliminate money for National Endowment for the Arts: Yes
Campaign finance reform: No
Confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general: Yes
Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning: Yes
Impeach President Clinton: Yes
President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut: Yes
National Journal rankings
Members are ranked conservative to liberal in three areas - economic policy, social issues and foreign policy. A composite score also is included.
The rankings are done via computer, using a statistical method called "principal components analysis," which uses the behavior of groups. The votes get categorized as liberal or conservative based on which blocks of Congress vote together. The computer ranks them and assigns weight to them.
Most conservative senators in 2001:
Jesse Helms, R-N.C., more conservative than 94.5 percent of his colleagues
Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., 94.5
Jim Bunning, R-Ky., 92
How others compare:
Trent Lott, R-Miss., Senate GOP leader: 88.7
Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 82.5
Richard Lugar, R-Ind., 77.2
Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, 60.5
George Voinovich, R-Ohio, 58.5
Evan Bayh, D-Ind., 40.7
Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., most liberal, 2.3
Source: Gannett News Service research
National Journal, a respected nonpartisan Washington weekly, has been compiling liberal and conservative records every year since 1981. Based on those computer analyses of votes, Mr. Bunning has been the Senate's No. 2 or No. 3 most-conservative member.
Now he's ready to move up.
In the most recent year for which the tally is available, 2001, Mr. Bunning ranked third behind conservative icons Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Both are retiring.
In 2000, Mr. Bunning ranked behind Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas. He lost in November. In 1999, his first year in the Senate, Mr. Bunning ranked second behind Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. He's retiring.
Vote rankings won't be out for 2002 until February. But no one questions that the Hall of Fame pitcher is a Hall of Fame conservative.
Earning friends and foes
His credentials could not be more solid: He gets perfect grades from the Christian Coalition, the American Conservative Union and the National Federation of Independent Business. He gets zeroes from liberal groups like Americans for Democratic Action, the gay rights lobby Human Rights Campaign and the League of Conservation Voters.
He called President Clinton "the most corrupt, the most amoral, the most despicable person I've ever seen in the presidency." He favors tax cuts, school prayer and gun rights.
"We're really satisfied with the job he's doing," said Sandra Bowman, executive director of the Kentucky Christian Coalition. "Kentuckians are conservative people. Our state is pro-life. Our churches are full on Sundays."
The conservative Family Foundation of Kentucky is thrilled with Mr. Bunning, too. The group's director, Kent Ostrander, said Mr. Bunning's efforts to eliminate the estate tax, excessive business taxes and abortion all are stands that most Kentuckians support.
"If I had been asked who is the most conservative senator, I probably would not have come up with his name," Mr. Ostrander said. "He's grounded in reality. It's a worthy compliment."
Kentucky liberals, not surprisingly, are less than enthused to claim the Senate's most conservative member.
"We are so unlucky. I don't feel like I have a representative there," said Patty Wallace, 72, a Louisa, Ky., "housewife from hell" who came to Washington from her home near the West Virginia border to lobby in May for clean water legislation.
When her group encountered Mr. Bunning coming off an elevator and tried to talk to him, "He just tried to walk away. It really angered me. ... I am really worried about the environment. I have seen nothing out of him as far as trying to protect what we have in our state."
Democrats like former state lawmaker and 1986 Bunning opponent Terry Mann acknowledge that Kentucky is a conservative state. Of the eight men the state sends to Washington to represent it, seven are Republicans. And the one Democrat, Rep. Ken Lucas of Union, Ky., is the most conservative Democrat in the House, according to National Journal rankings.
"To be successful in Kentucky politics statewide, you have to lean toward the conservative. That's just the way the state is," said Mr. Mann, who chairs the Campbell County Democratic Party.
But that doesn't mean Kentuckians agree with Mr. Bunning's votes. For example, Mr. Mann said he doubted most wanted to go to war against Iraq although Mr. Bunning supported a resolution giving President Bush authority for military action.
A `steadfast' vote
Mr. Bunning is a loyal Republican, voting with his party's leadership 97 percent of time in 2001, according to Congressional Quarterly. He supported President Bush 96 percent of the time.
Mr. Bunning hasn't yet emerged as a leader of the conservatives, but his voting record shows he will be one of, if not the most conservative of senators, said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. The group is the nation's oldest conservative lobbying organization.
"Jim Bunning has always been sort of steadfast," Mr. Keene said.
Some moderate Republicans have occasionally voiced frustration about Mr. Bunning, though rarely publicly. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., lamented what he saw as his party's lockstep voting in a speech to a Rhode Island audience last year, according to the Washington Post:
"You'll hear a name called, and you know how they'll vote." Mr. Chafee mimics the somber drone of the clerk calling the roll: " `Bunning from Kentucky.' It's entirely predictable how that vote will go."
But worse things can happen than being predictably conservative in Kentucky, said Michael Thomson, a Northern Kentucky University political science professor. Most Kentuckians, especially in Northern Kentucky, share Mr. Bunning's distaste for abortion, excessive government spending and regulation.
Being the Senate's Mr. Conservative won't hurt Mr. Bunning in 2004, Mr. Thomson said. After all, he's been public about his conservatism from the time he won his first election to Fort Thomas City Council in 1977.
Mr. Bunning got high conservative marks in the House, too, where the Republicans tend to be more to the right of their Senate counterparts. He ranked fourth during the Republican revolution heyday of 1995-'96, though he dropped during 1997 and 1998.
"Giving him the credit he's due, I think he says: `Here's who I am. If you like me, vote for me. If you don't like me, hey, tough,' " liberal Democrat Mr. Mann said. "He is what he is. He lays it out there."
And Mr. Bunning should hardly be upset to be ranked most conservative, Mr. Mann said.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Mr. Mann said, "if he uses that as a promotional opportunity."
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