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A Man of Compromise in a Hostile World : John H. Chafee is the Senate’s pivot man on environment. And that’s a tough spot for a Republican caught in a tide of conservatism.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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.

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.”

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“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 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.”

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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.”

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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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Good fortune would come crashing down years later when, in the midst of a faltering gubernatorial reelection campaign, his 14-year-old daughter, Tribbie, would suffer a fatal head injury in an equestrian accident.

His political career began in the Rhode Island House of Representatives four years after Korea. In 1963, at age 40, he was elected governor by a mere 398 votes, but reelected twice by overwhelming margins. His trademark in the intimate politics of tiny Rhode Island was campaigning by handshake and there were few in the Ocean State who didn’t get the chance to clasp his hand.

“There are no two points in Rhode Island that are more than an hour and 20 minutes apart by auto,” says Federal Appeals Court Judge Bruce Selya, a close friend. “When you’re governor, people just expect you to [meet them].”

There was no seminal event that drew Chafee toward environmentalism. Life shaped his sympathies in spurts and starts: a childhood of family trips to national parks; a Chafee retreat on Maine’s rocky coast; the ardent environmental passions of Ginny, his wife of 45 years, and the five children and 11 grandchildren so often cited as beneficiaries of the green legacy Chafee wishes to see left behind. (Chafee also fought to lessen the pain that would be inflicted on the disabled, the poor and the elderly in the Medicare and Medicaid battle.)

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As governor, he won passage of an environmental program to preserve open space from development. Today, Chafee sits on the board of the Rhode Island environmental group Save the Bay.

As Navy secretary under Richard Nixon, he liked taking his children for camp-outs on the Virginia farm of then-undersecretary John W. Warner--now Republican senator and subcommittee chairman under Chafee. “He would go out in the woods and pitch a tent,” Warner recalls. “I would never see him.”

In the Senate, Chafee was instrumental in reauthorizing the Clean Air Act of 1990 and strengthening pollution emissions standards. So sympathetic were his environmental views that some conservatives chafed at his being named chairman of the Environment Committee when the GOP took control of the Senate. To compensate, the panel was stacked with conservative subcommittee chairmen like Faircloth, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho and Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire.

As a result, says a Chafee aide, his staffers suffer ideological disagreements with staff members working for the more conservative Republican subcommittee chiefs, making for dicey strategy sessions. “People around the table don’t trust each other,” the aide says.

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Still, the Grail has been holy compromise, and the amiable Chafee has set his shoulder to the task, visiting subcommittee chairmen in their states, staying in their homes, roughing it into their wilderness areas, sharing the stage at town meetings.

“You try to forestall [disagreements] in advance,” Chafee says. “You try to keep meeting with your folks and finding out the hot buttons with them and doing it that way.”

It may be working.

In Smith’s revised version of the 1980 toxic-waste clean-up law known as Superfund, he rejected a costly conservative demand that the federal government fully reimburse those companies that had been forced by the law--under its controversial retroactive liability clause--to clean up toxic sites created prior to 1980. Instead of reimbursement, Smith would offer those companies restricted and partial tax credits.

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In Kempthorne’s new version of Safe Drinking Water, he has included conservative demands for a cost-benefit analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards. But he’s inserted a clause that prevents any such analyses from weakening current standards.

Such modifications have won Chafee’s co-sponsorship of both bills and, in the case of Kempthorne’s Safe Drinking Water revision, unanimous approval by the full committee last month.

Kempthorne may be less eager to budge on his new version of the Endangered Species Act, which is still in negotiation. Sections of that bill would eliminate species recovery as a goal and significantly reduce habitat protection, outraging environmentalists. Still, Kempthorne staffers say he may back off on some areas, such as a controversial section calling for the compensation of landowners whose property values suffer because the habitat of a spotted owl, or other endangered species, must be preserved. Such language is included in Kempthorne’s draft, but for “discussion purposes” only. Says a press aide: “I don’t think he’s settled on it.”

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Conservatives fear that Kempthorne, among others, is “starting to go green on us.” Chafee may be working his magic, they say.

“I think that a lot of them like him personally and I think that Chafee is a decent human being and that’s part of the problem with the conservatives,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Shanahan. "[Chafee’s] real strength is in keeping bills from coming forward and in somewhat watering them down.”

But one bill where compromise may be impossible is Faircloth’s wetlands legislation, which, according to critics, could drastically reduce the amount of federally protected wetlands. Chafee has gone on record opposing such a formula, but will he vote against a Republican bill in his own committee?

The last time Chafee aligned himself with the Democrats on key issues, during the Bush Administration, he was bounced from the No. 3 Republican leadership post in the Senate.

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