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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.

Feinstein Takes Pride in Working With GOP

California's senior senator gets high ratings from some liberal groups but also seeks image as a moderate who can cooperate with conservatives.


WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was on the phone last week, happily talking to one of Congress' most conservative members, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin).

Just the day before, Feinstein had come under attack as a liberal at a California debate featuring three Republicans competing to become her opponent in November. No matter. Now she was planning strategy with one of her ideological opposites, a lawmaker who opposes gun control and normal trade relations with China, two issues that Feinstein supports.

Feinstein and Doolittle are working together to promote legislation to clean up Lake Tahoe. Her call to Doolittle is emblematic of how California's senior senator--facing no major Democratic opposition in next Tuesday's primary but looking ahead to November--plans to cast herself as a moderate who can work with Republicans as well as Democrats.

Since her election to the Senate in 1992, Feinstein has established an image for herself as "one of the best bridges in the Senate between Democrats and the majority GOP," as Congressional Quarterly's "Politics in America" put it.

"I'm not an ideologue," Feinstein, 66, said in a recent interview.

She has joined with Republicans in pushing a constitutional amendment granting rights to crime victims. She worked with Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on anti-gang legislation. And she ran afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union for supporting a constitutional amendment to prohibit desecration of the flag--the only Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to do so.

Feinstein's independent streak extended to her dealings with President Clinton. She pushed to censure the president for his conduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair, although she ultimately voted with Democrats to acquit the president during his impeachment trial.

Riordan Expects to Back Feinstein

While he has yet to formally endorse her, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, said it was a safe bet he would again cross party lines to support Feinstein's reelection. And his backing, he said, was not so much based on her positions as on her approach to politics.

"I think people make the mistake of [asking], 'Do you agree on issues?' " Riordan said. "Really what you want in a president, a senator or whatever is a leader. A problem solver. The ideologues are irrelevant. In that regard, I give her a triple A plus," Riordan said.

Jack Pitney, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, added: "The cliche in Washington is that there are two kinds of senators: workhorses and show horses. She is a workhorse. People rely on her to do the serious business of legislation. Although her voting record isn't that much different from Barbara Boxer's, certainly in terms of her rhetoric and her priorities, she works more in the middle."

Still, Feinstein, like Boxer, received a 100% rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action for her votes last year on certain social and economic issues, though in prior years she received lower ratings than Boxer. The ACLU gave Feinstein a 67% score for last year.

"What her voting record doesn't show is how passionate she is about amending the Constitution in a way that we believe deprives people of their rights," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU national legislative office.

Feinstein also has drawn criticism from immigrants' rights groups for her tough stands on illegal immigration.

"I don't think of her as a voice of immigrants or the poor," said Alice Callaghan, who founded Las Familias del Pueblo shelter in Los Angeles.

She sharply criticized Feinstein for supporting national identity cards and being a late, lukewarm opponent of Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative to deny state services to illegal immigrants.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president of policy for the National Council of La Raza in Washington, said Feinstein has a mixed record on issues of importance to the Latino community. She cited Feinstein's opposition to a 1996 measure that would have eased the legal standard for workers who sue employers for discrimination.

On the other hand, Feinstein pushed legislation restoring benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid to needy legal immigrants who were cut off from assistance after the 1996 welfare reform. And she received a perfect score on the most recent report card of votes issued by the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of Latino groups.

While Feinstein decries the partisanship of the U.S. Senate, she is perhaps best known as a leading voice for gun control--an issue that divides the parties like few others.

Other than a ban on assault weapons that she sponsored, no major gun control measure has been enacted into law since the Republicans took control of Congress after the 1994 elections.

She proudly exhibits in her Capitol Hill office the vote tally sheet from Senate approval last year of her long-sought ban on the importing of high-capacity ammunition magazines used in assault weapons.

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