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He's the Green Movement's Last Great Hope in a Hostile Congress : Politics: John H. Chafee is the Senate's pivot man on environment--a tough spot for a Republican.

November 10, 1995|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — The Sierra Club honored U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee recently with a Churchillian phrase crafted in the darkest hour of the Battle of Britain, when all hope rested on a handful of skilled fighter pilots.

"Never," reads the inscription on the award, "was so much owed by so many. . . ."

If the Rhode Island Republican is the green movement's last great hope in a hostile Congress, Chafee is an annoyance for conservatives eager to dismantle what they say is environmental regulatory abuse gone mad.

"He's seen as a weak sister . . . an impediment," says John Shanahan, environmental policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank advising GOP leaders on regulatory reform.

Whether weak sister or warrior, this Yankee politician and long-ago Ivy League wrestling champ (New England finals, 1951, 165-pound weight class) is the Senate's pivot man on the environment. A four-term member who cherishes the parks he built as Rhode Island governor as much as he laments destruction of an oak tree his children once played upon, Chafee, who just turned 73, chairs the crucial Environment and Public Works Committee.

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Four pillars of environmental law--the 1972 Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act and Superfund--will come up for reauthorization before the 16-member panel; Republicans hold only a two-vote majority.

"Those of us in the Congress who want to preserve the great environmental success of the past 25 years--and, indeed, build on them--have a tough job before us," Chafee told the Sierra Club in a San Francisco speech Sept. 16.

The House of Representatives has already begun drastic revisions, passing a version of the Clean Water Act that relaxes restrictions on the release of lightly treated sewage into the ocean. It also defines wetlands in such a way that critics say it will allow greater development of now-protected areas, and requires the government to compensate landowners when federal wetlands restrictions devalue their property. Chafee slammed the revisions as "outrageous."

"He is the one, if he is strong, who could put together the necessary coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to stop this steamroller that has begun in the House," says Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a member of the environment committee.

If federal standards for water, habitat or toxic waste were eased or lifted, Californians would be among the first to feel it, she says. "Believe me, John Chafee is very important to California."

"Given this political context," says Robert Sulnick, executive director of the Santa Monica-based American Oceans Campaign, "he's the dike and we have our finger in it, so to speak."

Yet hard-core conservatives, including some of Chafee's own subcommittee chairmen, say environmentalists may be in for a surprise. They warn that Chafee would be foolish to squander political capital by siding with the Democrats to create an 8-8 tie. Nor, they say, does Chafee have the clout to otherwise stem the conservative tide on reform.

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"I think that the Sierra Club and the environmental extremists are expecting too much from Sen. Chafee," says Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), chairman of the environment subcommittee on clean air and wetlands.

Except that if Chafee can deliver compromise, the hallmark commodity of his nearly 40 years in politics, who's to say he will disappoint?

He has, after all, thrived--as a Republican in a Democratic Rhode Island that gave Michael Dukakis his highest percentage vote in 1988; as a Protestant embraced by a predominantly Roman Catholic community; as a politician who remains influential despite voting with George Bush about as frequently as he votes with Bill Clinton.

Friends warn that the Senate today is an increasingly partisan, bickering chamber where moderates are more isolated and fewer in number. "Put it this way," Chafee muses: "There is some additional seating capacity at the meetings."

Their traditional role as bridge-builders is ebbing in the increasingly hostile environment, says Dave Durenberger, a former Minnesota senator and a moderate who is close to Chafee. "It's really hard on these guys in the middle. I think John is in an incredibly difficult position."

It certainly wouldn't be the first tough spot for John Hubbard Chafee, born and raised in Providence, the great-grandson of a Rhode Island governor and son of a toolmaking executive. Chafee's generation persevered on the battlefields of the Pacific. He left Yale to join the Marines and fight at Guadalcanal and Okinawa. After returning to finish his degree and go on to Harvard Law School, a restless Chafee willingly accepted recall to active duty when Korea flared. Commissioned a captain, he led a rifle company.

"I liked the adventure of it," he says, although combat, with its capricious horrors, would forever mark him. "I always thought there was such luck in it all. I mean I'd be standing in one place and move and a shell would come there. It was just absolute, sheer luck."

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