Senate Centrist John H. Chafee Is Dead at 77


John H. Chafee, Rhode Island’s senior senator who died late Sunday, was one of the last of a Senate breed that wielded influence far beyond its numbers: moderate Republicans who often helped reach compromise between the ideological extremes of the two parties.

Chafee, 77, a 23-year veteran of the Senate, died of heart failure at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He had announced earlier this year that he would not seek a fifth term so that he could spend more time with his family.

“He embodied the decent center,” said President Clinton. “For him, civility was not simply a matter of personal manners. He believed it was essential to the preservation of our democratic system.”


A former secretary of the Navy in the Richard Nixon administration, Chafee was one of the Senate’s last “Rockefeller Republicans,” who believed, like former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in balancing fiscal and military concerns with a commitment to social welfare and to the needs of the poor.

As recently as the early 1990s, the Senate centrists were a significant caucus within the GOP, although never a majority. As they left the Senate, they were almost uniformly replaced by younger conservatives--except in the Northeast, where Democrats often took their places.

Their influence accordingly waned, particularly as the GOP took control of the Senate in 1994 under the leadership of the party’s conservative wing. Still, they were the force that brought the increasingly partisan Republican Senate back to the middle, making it possible for bills to be passed--such as the 1996 overhaul of the welfare law--that Clinton could sign and Democrats in Congress could support.

Chafee’s record of finding common ground between the parties was most notable in environmental policy, health care for the poor and child welfare. In 1997, he spearheaded a bill that created incentives so that abused and neglected children could be adopted rather than rotated through foster homes. He was also a staunch and unwavering supporter of abortion rights.

The Rhode Island senator was chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. His party’s conservative leaders appointed several members who were staunchly pro-business, and Chafee was stymied in his efforts to pass strong environmental legislation. But he succeeded in burying bills that would have drastically weakened the Clean Water Act and undermined the Endangered Species Act.

When Democrats were in the majority in 1990, Chafee was the lead Senate Republican negotiator in the crafting of the Clean Air Act.

“John Chafee was the link to a more bipartisan past,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “He remembered the Senate when the center aisle between Democrats and Republicans looked more like a drawbridge and less like a moat.”

Certainly there are still a handful of Republican senators who have voting records similar to Chafee’s, but none of them has the seniority or commands the same deep respect from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I don’t know who it would be who would lead our centrist coalition now,” said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who worked closely with Chafee on welfare reform and expanding government health insurance to the children of the working poor. Breaux and Chafee formed the Centrist Coalition, a bipartisan group of moderates.

“It’s a big loss. So many of the people who were in the coalition aren’t here anymore, but Chafee still hung in there,” Breaux said. “He got in a lot of trouble [and] he did it at the risk of people giving him difficulties within his own party.”

Still, what perhaps most distinguished Chafee was the warmth and goodwill he inspired, even from people with whom he disagreed.

“As a conservative who disagreed with [him] on most of the issues, I still had a reverence for John Chafee,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). “Every time he would say something about one of those issues, I would stop and listen because I’d say: ‘This is John. I need to listen.’ I think he had more of an impact on the people who didn’t agree with him than people who did agree with him.”

Chafee’s persuasive abilities were apparent in his efforts to find a compromise when Republicans attempted to overhaul the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s. He convinced former Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho), an anti-regulatory conservative, to work with him on a compromise. Ultimately, it was attacked by both business and environmentalists.

“He believed if you can keep people talking to each other you’re not likely to have people at each other’s throats and you’re more likely to find a middle ground,” said former Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.). He recalled Chafee’s sadness when a group of Republicans walked out of negotiations to find a unified Senate GOP position on health care policy in the early 1990s.

“He was heartbroken when a bunch of the more conservative Republicans left the group--it hurt him that they wouldn’t stick with the process,” recalled Durenberger.

Chafee’s political philosophy grew out of his family’s deep New England roots and his life of public service.

Born into one of Rhode Island’s five founding families, John Hubbard Chafee came from a tradition of wealth and privilege that took to heart the old-fashioned notion of noblesse oblige.

“He believed that to whom much is given, much is expected,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

He earned degrees from Yale and Harvard Law School and, after completing his education, could have chosen to take over his father’s tool business. Instead, he decided to serve in the military and then enter politics. He joined the Marines during World War II, taking part in the Guadalcanal assault in the Pacific, and also served in the Korean War.

He represented a generation that believed government had a role to play. It remembered the federal role in helping millions of people through the Great Depression, fighting the Second World War and making the civil rights movement a reality. Earlier this month, Chafee was one of a handful of GOP senators who voted for the nuclear test ban treaty.

Many of Chafee’s younger, more conservative Senate colleagues, most of whom have not fought in foreign wars, take more isolationist positions.

“He and his generation brought back an internationalist view. . . . These were people who had very strong overseas experiences, they were mindful of the fact that the United States had a place in the world and he was trying to spare the country--if not the president--the embarrassment of a defeated treaty,” Baker said of Chafee’s treaty vote.

It will be up to Lincoln Almond, Rhode Island’s Republican governor, to appoint someone to fill Chafee’s seat until the term expires in 2000. One son, Lincoln Chafee, the mayor of Warwick, R.I., previously had announced plans to run for his father’s seat. Chafee is survived by his wife and five children.