Debate Pits Canny Veteran Against a Youthful Comer

Times Staff Writer

The two senators competing for vice president vote alike now and then. But otherwise they could hardly be more different.

Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, 67, is a Senate baron, a canny back-room negotiator and one of the most respected legislative craftsmen in the upper chamber. He is a quiet man who rarely wastes a word and possesses a manner that seems aristocratic, if not aloof.

Dan Quayle of Indiana is an opposition party back-bencher who can seem younger than his 41 years, often brash and talkative but earnest, hard-working and amiable. Only in the last few of his 12 years in Congress, his friends and foes agree, has he started to focus his energy, primarily on national security issues.

Whether Bentsen will be able to turn his more impressive legislative credentials to his advantage will not be known until Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., when the two vice presidential candidates will hold their only nationally televised debate of the 1988 campaign.


In fact, some who have observed the two senators believe Quayle’s qualities will serve him well in the 90-minute debate format.

“I think Dan Quayle will surprise people--all that the Republicans do around here is debate,” said one Democratic senator who asked not to be named.

This senator, observing that Quayle defeated well-established incumbents to win a House seat at the age of 29 and a Senate seat at the age of 33, is worried that Bentsen will have a tough job overcoming the low expectations for his younger opponent in the debate.

On the issues, Bentsen is a somewhat conservative Democrat, particularly on fiscal policy and some foreign policy matters, while Quayle is a conservative Republican to the core.


They have both favored aid to Nicaragua’s rebels and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, but Bentsen’s stands in favor of civil rights and his frequent support of domestic spending programs distinguish him from Quayle.

The greater distinction, however, lies in the two senators’ legislative statures.

Record of Achievement

Bentsen, regarded as possessing one of the sharpest political minds in the Democratic Party, has compiled a long record of achievement in his 18 years in the Senate.

In the last two years alone, as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, he has presided over passage of a comprehensive trade bill, a catastrophic health care act and a landmark welfare bill that all cleared Congress with overwhelming majorities.

Quayle, a senator for only eight years, has only one major bill to his credit--a job training act that was passed with help from liberal Democrats during the period when the Republicans controlled the Senate. His work last year to clarify the meaning of the treaty banning medium-range nuclear missiles received wide approval, and his stand on defense issues is getting increasing attention.

Considered Too Partisan

But many senators regard him as too partisan, a hotspur who needs seasoning to win full acceptance by his peers.


“Dan Quayle is a nice fellow, but you can’t compare him in stature or standing with Lloyd Bentsen,” said one Democratic senator who, to preserve senatorial comity, asked not to be quoted by name. “If you’re looking for an ally, you’d much rather have Lloyd than Dan.”

“Quayle brings more heat than light to any discussion,” said a Senate Labor Committee aide who has observed the Indiana senator at close range. “When Bentsen speaks, you listen.”

A long-time adviser said Bentsen has a knack of cutting to the heart of an issue and instantly rejecting staff aides’ efforts to gloss over difficulties. “He’s a detail guy,” this aide said, “but he doesn’t niggle over unimportant things. . . . He absorbs written material a lot better than oral presentations.”

Quayle, on the other hand, seems to prefer briefings and meets about 20 times a month--nearly every working day--with high government officials, diplomats and others who can provide insights on current issues. He concentrates on his assignment to the Armed Services Committee, whose hearings he attends whenever possible, and on the Labor Committee.

Quayle ‘Shoots From the Lip’

An aide said he may cram for hours before an important session of the Labor Committee, but one committee observer said he still tends to “shoot from the lip” during committee sessions.

Quayle, whose conservatism is sometimes more ideological than pragmatic, often sticks with positions, even when they appear politically hopeless. For example, on a very popular bill to require employers to give workers 60 days’ notice of plant closings or mass layoffs, Quayle led the opposition to the end--and then saw President Reagan allow it to become law.

He once annoyed his colleagues by his relentless campaign for a relatively minor bill to exempt professional baseball batboys from the restrictions against child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Although he eventually succeeded, his effort did not add to his reputation on the Senate floor.


Bentsen, by contrast, prefers to negotiate in private or conduct the one-on-one lobbying of other senators that is regarded as the most effective form of persuasion in the 100-member body. Unlike Quayle, he is in an excellent position to extract and confer legislative favors because of his chairmanship of the Finance Committee.

‘Good Things to Give Away’

As a veteran tax lobbyist said: “They grow strong chairmen in the Finance Committee because they have so many good things to give away--or take away.”

On the issues, Bentsen seems to have evolved since he ran to the right of George Bush--and won--during their Texas Senate race in 1970.

In 1981, during Reagan’s burst of popularity after his first election as President, Bentsen supported the President’s positions 70% of the time, compared with 49% for the average Democratic senator. By 1987, however, Bentsen’s backing of the President had declined to 44%, compared with 36% for the typical Democrat in the Senate.

Quayle’s support for Reagan also eroded, but from a much higher level: 87% in 1981 to 71% last year.

“He’s a loyal Republican,” one aide said. “But he has his own internal compass, and he doesn’t jump to decisions.”

Voted Against B-1 Bomber

Quayle has demonstrated his independence with his votes against the B-1 bomber and in favor of continued grain embargoes against the Soviet Union--both contrary to positions taken by Republican presidential candidate George Bush.

Bentsen’s stance on the issues took a particular turn toward the liberal after the Democrats wrested control of the Senate from the Republicans in 1986.

His rating by Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal organization, jumped from 45% in 1986 to 60% the next year, and the AFL-CIO now gives him an 80% rating.

Quayle’s ADA rating has never edged above 5%, and his AFL-CIO score was 20% for the most recent session of Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s current rating of Quayle is 89%, twice as high as Bentsen’s, and he received an 81% favorable rating from the American Conservative Union for his 1987 votes, compared with Bentsen’s 31%.

Bentsen and Quayle have voted together to support President Reagan on some major issues, including the balanced budget amendment and aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. Similarly, they both voted to override Reagan’s vetoes of South African sanctions and a 1987 budget resolution calling for $10 billion in new taxes and a $19-billion cut in Pentagon spending.

Bentsen Stronger on Civil Rights

But they have diverged as often as they have agreed. On civil rights, for example, Bentsen prides himself on his opposition to the Texas poll tax during his six years as a House member in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Quayle, during a Labor Committee hearing, once said about civil rights: “I have very little interest . . . . My personal concerns are very minimal in that area.”

Bentsen voted with two-thirds of the Senate last year to override President Reagan’s veto of a landmark civil rights bill that strengthened the federal government’s powers to combat discrimination by users of federal funds. Quayle was one of 14 senators who voted to sustain Reagan’s veto.

On military issues, Bentsen backed a 40% cut for Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in 1986; Quayle voted for full funding. Bentsen has favored U.S. compliance with the nuclear missile limits in the unratified SALT II treaty; Quayle has not.

Opposed Chemical Bomb

Bentsen voted against developing a Bigeye chemical bomb; Quayle voted for it. Bentsen favored, and Quayle opposed, a bill to require the President to notify Congress no later than 48 hours after the beginning of a covert foreign policy or intelligence action.

On other issues, Quayle in 1985 supported President Reagan’s budget plan, calling for a one-year freeze in Social Security cost-of-living adjustments and the largest reductions in history in domestic spending programs. Bentsen opposed the President’s proposal.

In recent years, Quayle has voted against a $15-billion housing bill, supported Reagan’s veto of an $88-billion highway and mass transit bill and voted against an increase in the federal debt limit to accommodate the growing deficit. Bentsen was on the other side in each case.