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NEWS ANALYSIS : Feinstein, Huffington Split on Role of Government : Politics: Senator believes in actively pursuing legislative agenda; challenger uses his vote against big spending.


WASHINGTON — First-term Sen. Dianne Feinstein quickly established herself as a player in a tradition-bound institution that expects newcomers to sit on the sidelines. She labored intensely on two high-octane committees and latched onto hundreds of millions of new federal dollars for California.

First-term Rep. Mike Huffington is widely regarded by his colleagues as a phantom. He attended committee hearings and cast votes, but demonstrated little interest in the craft of legislating, in using his clout to help his Santa Barbara district or even in following through on promises to shake up Congress.

California voters could not ask for a more stark contrast between the two major candidates for U.S. Senate this year, at least based on a review of their performances on Capitol Hill over the past 21 months. Feinstein and Huffington hold such contrary views about the role of government in today's world--and pursue their lawmaking roles so differently--that they seem to be operating in separate universes.

What's more, both candidates agree to a large extent on their differences.

Feinstein, a career Democratic politician, boasts of her ability to work the layers of government bureaucracy, and unapologetically goes after every crumb of the federal pie for California.

"My record has been that of a real senator, with hands-on impact in constituent service as well as legislation," Feinstein said in an interview. "I'm there at every turn to fight for California's interests."

Huffington, a Republican oil and gas tycoon, rails against federal intervention and backs that up with his record as a legislative naysayer. He regularly voted against multibillion-dollar spending bills, even though their defeat would deny funding for programs he supports.

"You will not find me producing a lot of new laws and regulations, that's for certain," said Huffington, speaking proudly of his legislative record. "My point is that I want to try to remove the federal government's intrusiveness from people's lives."

Despite their different approaches, their disagreement on the role of government and on many economic issues, the 47-year-old Huffington and 61-year-old Feinstein agree to a surprising extent on a range of social issues. They both favor abortion rights, the death penalty, inclusion of gays in the military, stricter handgun registration provisions and laws requiring businesses to grant their employees unpaid family and medical leave. They also support a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget and a presidential line-item veto.

Overall, voting studies show that Feinstein is nearly the political clone of President Clinton and liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Both California senators cast more than 90% of their votes in line with the President's positions last year, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.

Huffington, who bills himself as an "independent Republican," voted with his party 86% of the time. But he was one of only two California Republicans to support Feinstein's assault weapons ban and the only one to oppose a GOP alternative to the Clinton tax plan that would have reduced the deficit by $352 billion over five years. Huffington said the Republican measure did not go far enough.

Huffington attacks Feinstein's critical vote last year that provided the margin of victory in the Senate for the Clinton Administration's economic plan. He claims the budget package, by some measures the largest federal tax increase in history, saddled Californians with a $37-billion tax hike. Feinstein contends that only the wealthiest Californians were affected and the Clinton economic plan is projected to reduce the federal deficit by $691 billion through 1998.

In the House, Huffington consistently opposed huge appropriations bills that pay for individual programs he supports. He is a hawk on defense, but voted five times against the Pentagon budget. He favors increased funding for an additional 1,300 Border Patrol agents to fight illegal immigration--a measure Feinstein helped get through the Senate--but voted three times against the necessary spending bills.

Huffington explained that he supports the financing of specific programs, but often opposes huge spending bills because they simply cost too much. He said his voting record demonstrates that, if elected to the Senate, he would be an extreme fiscal conservative.

"I won't be voting for income tax increases. I will be voting against a lot of spending," he said. "Whereas Feinstein has been gobbling up 8 million acres (in her California desert bill) and taking away guns, and she interferes in other people's lives, I'll be the opposite. In the Senate, I can probably get rid of a lot of that junk."

On the campaign trail, Huffington portrays himself as part of a new generation of citizen lawmakers committed to overhauling Congress. He calls Feinstein an out-of-touch, career politician who revels in the perquisites of office.

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