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The two sides of Rick Santorum

The Republican presidential candidate portrays himself as an outsider taking on the establishment – but the record shows he played a good inside game during his 16 years in Congress.

February 23, 2012|By Richard Simon and Colby Itkowitz, Reporting from Washington
  • Then-Sen. Rick Santorum, left, joins President Bush at a fundraiser for Sen. Arlen Specter, right, in 2004. Santorum backed the moderate Republican, a supporter of abortion rights, rather than Specter's more conservative, antiabortion challenger.
Then-Sen. Rick Santorum, left, joins President Bush at a fundraiser for… (Susan Walsh, Associated…)

A U.S. senator for barely three months, Rick Santorum, then just 36, sought to strip 72-year-old Republican Mark O. Hatfield of a committee chairmanship for voting against a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.

The longtime Oregon senator kept the gavel, but Santorum put his colleagues on notice in 1995 that he would bring a brash, more partisan style to the genteel chamber to advance conservative causes.

About a decade later, Santorum backed Sen. Arlen Specter, a supporter of abortion rights, over a more conservative, antiabortion challenger in Pennsylvania's GOP primary.

The actions show two sides to Santorum: a man who portrays himself in his presidential primary campaign as an outsider taking on the establishment, but also a man who played a good inside game during four years in the House and 12 in the Senate.

Santorum was very much the insider when it came to earmarking funds for home-state projects, a practice often derided as pork-barrel spending. Santorum also rapidly worked his way up to become the Senate's third-ranking Republican, responsible for the party's messaging.

Santorum's record in Congress has come under fire as he has surged in the race. Mitt Romney attacked him Thursday for saying during a testy debate the night before that he voted for President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, an expansion of the federal role in education that is unpopular among conservatives, out of party loyalty.

"He talked about this as being taking one for the team," Romney said of Santorum. "I wonder which team he was taking it for.... My team is the American people, not the insiders of Washington."

Santorum has said that he now regrets the vote.

Six years after Santorum lost his Senate seat, his tenure on Capitol Hill draws mixed reviews from former colleagues and Congress watchers.

Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) called Santorum a "very rigid man … a lot tougher than [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich to deal with."

And former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) said of Santorum: "I'm not opposed to bucking the establishment, but I always felt he was using the establishment for his own aggrandizement. I remember him saying, 'You've got to give me a little slack. I need to vote for this for my state.' … It was a little bit inconsistent to take on Hatfield for what he did based on the kinds of things Santorum did."

But others say they appreciated Santorum's hard-charging style. "He was aggressive," said former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, a Romney supporter.

Lott said that many of Santorum's former colleagues committed early to Romney and didn't expect Santorum "to do as well as he has," but that there also was concern that Santorum doesn't appeal enough to independents and moderate Democrats to get elected.

Santorum made a name for himself soon after he was elected to the House over a Democratic incumbent in 1990.

He was one of the "Gang of Seven" freshmen, along with current Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), to force House leaders to spotlight members who had written overdrafts on the now-defunct House bank.

Santorum played a key role in overhauling the welfare system, first as a House member, then as a freshman senator chosen by Majority Leader Bob Dole to lead the floor fight.

"Dole chose Santorum, who had been in the Senate about 150 days, to be the point person on welfare reform," said Robert Rector, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation who worked with Republicans on the effort. "That was a great testimony to the Republicans' assessment of Santorum's ability."

After the bill became law, Santorum pushed for federal funding to promote "healthy marriage" and "responsible fatherhood."

Santorum was perhaps best known in the Senate as an outspoken advocate of banning same-sex marriage, restricting abortion, and other social conservative positions. He was the chief sponsor of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003.

"He was willing to take on issues that others weren't," said Brian Darling, a former Senate GOP aide now with the Heritage Foundation.

John Ullyot, another former Senate Republican aide, added: "Despite how you feel about him, his convictions are genuine."

Santorum has drawn criticism from the conservative Club for Growth for a "mixed record" on federal spending.

The group also calls him a "prolific" supporter of earmarks.

Santorum has come in for criticism for supporting Alaska's proposed "bridge to nowhere," an earmark to link Ketchikan to an island with an airport and 50 people that has become a symbol of congressional excess.

Santorum defended his earmarking as a way to fund important projects in his home state without ceding Congress' power of the purse to the executive branch.

The National Taxpayers Union gave Santorum a B-plus average for his votes on fiscal issues since 1992.

While Santorum voted the party line more than 90% of the time, he occasionally broke ranks.

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