A bare-knuckles politician hulks over Senate race here

WASHINGTON — The most powerful U.S. senators run on a high-octane mix of fear and IOUs — they cause the former and collect the latter.

For 38 years, few have been as fearsome or held as many chits as Ted Stevens, the irascible Republican from Alaska.

But four days before Christmas, when he tried to cash in those IOUs to approve oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Stevens found himself stymied by a freshman senator from a Democratic state: Maria Cantwell. The result was a spectacular 12-minute meltdown on the Senate floor.

Waving his hands, his voice rising in anger, Stevens admonished his colleagues that a vote against ANWR drilling would impoverish Hurricane Katrina victims, leave the elderly to freeze during the winter and even aid terrorists.

He vowed to travel the country and tell voters about the harm their senators inflicted by blocking the flow of Alaskan oil and the money it would raise.

Then he turned his attention to Cantwell, who had led the opposition: "I hope the senator from Washington likes my visits to Washington state, because I'm gonna visit there often."

It was an embarrassing public defeat for someone who has directed billions in taxpayer dollars to help other senators. And it was the culmination of a rift between Stevens and Cantwell over energy and environmental issues.

However, the final sentence he muttered is more crucial to understanding the depth of Stevens' anger. As he ended, he stared at his colleagues and said, "The time I've spent with you, working on your problems ... ."

They owed him. Ultimately, he would collect those IOUs.

Stevens, the most senior Republican in the Senate, is the high priest of bare-knuckle politics. For almost longer than Cantwell has been alive, he has practiced that religion fervently in public, and more fervidly behind closed doors.

He has used his seat on the Appropriations Committee and his perfect knowledge of lawmaking's arcane details to reward supporters and punish opponents.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he oversees fisheries, telecommunications, oil-tanker safety and other issues important to the Northwest. He's also president pro tempore of the Senate, which makes him third in line for the presidency.

Closer to home, his long history working with Washington's congressional delegation has led some people to call him the state's third senator.

But now there's acrimony, with Stevens striking out against the state to get at Cantwell and the two snapping at each other at public hearings.

He blames Cantwell.

"Cantwell really hasn't done much around here, so she needed something to attack," Stevens said in an interview. "She and her staff have been out to make me the enemy of Seattle."

He added, "We've got a bad apple in this basket."

Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks, both Democrats from Washington, have learned to work with Stevens — often to the state's benefit.

Cantwell, at least in some cases, can't or won't.

Her staff says some of Stevens' moves are simply anti-Washington. In recent years, he has worked to relocate Seattle-based government ships to berths in Alaska, pushed to undo parts of the Endangered Species Act and proposed to abolish limits on oil tankers in Puget Sound.

Cantwell declined to be interviewed for this story.

But in a written statement, she said she has worked well with Stevens on a number of issues, including fisheries and aerospace.

"First and foremost, though, I work for Washington state families and what is best for those of us living in the Northwest, even if it means he and I don't end up on the same side," her statement said.

After the ANWR loss, talk around Congress was about whether Alaska's senior senator had reached too far, whether his power was diminished.

The months since then show it would be a big mistake to count him out.

Is Cantwell ungrateful?

Stevens feels he has thrown Cantwell a bone or two, but she's ungrateful.

Last year, he allowed her to convene a hearing in Washington state on oil-tanker spills, under the auspices of his Commerce Committee. That's not something normally bestowed on a junior senator from the opposing party.

He says he also authorized her trip to Iraq last year.

"Cantwell didn't even come talk with me about the trip directly," he said.

As for ANWR, Stevens doesn't just think Cantwell is wrong in opposing drilling. He says she's hypocritical.

"She says, 'Let us decide what to do about issues in Washington state,' " he snapped. But then Cantwell keeps trying to shove her anti-ANWR view down Alaskan throats, Stevens says.

He also was furious at Cantwell's attempts to make energy executives, his longtime friends, be sworn in under oath when they testified about gas prices before his committee last November.

Cantwell, a member of the Commerce Committee, lost that battle but won the publicity war. The video clip of Stevens repeatedly cutting her off during the hearing became one of the year's biggest hits on comedian Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."

In March, Stevens waded into Cantwell's re-election campaign against Republican challenger Mike McGavick.

Stevens announced the withdrawal of his controversial bill that would allow more oil tankers in the Puget Sound. Then, in an artfully staged press briefing, his eyes twinkling, Stevens credited McGavick for convincing him to drop the legislation and lauded the challenger for his gentility.

McGavick says he appreciates the support, which included a recent fundraiser for him hosted by Stevens in Anchorage.

But every time Stevens endorses McGavick or resurrects ANWR, Cantwell reminds voters that she's a fighter willing to take on a powerful senator and his special-interest backers.

"A hissy fit"

It has become almost too easy to make sport of Stevens' penchant for drama and hyperbole.

In October, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tried to cut several projects from the federal budget, including $223 million for the "bridge to nowhere" that would link Ketchikan and its airport on Gravina Island, population 50. Stevens threw what one newspaper called "a hissy fit."

"I will resign from this body," he thundered from the Senate floor.

After one ANWR debate last year, Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News: "I'm seriously depressed, unfortunately, clinically depressed."

He has been accused on his home turf of helping special interests, including fishing-industry representatives, who hired his son as a consultant. In a heated counterattack last year, Stevens threatened to investigate the circulation numbers of the newspaper chain that broke the story.

At 82, his creviced face is almost completely obscured by owlish glasses, and back injuries have left him — at 5-foot-7 — 2 inches shorter than he used to be.

Still, he towers above the rest of the Senate in ability to use and abuse quorum calls, delays, debate and backroom deals.

He has made Alaska the No. 1 state in per-capita federal spending, at $12,885 for every man, woman and child in 2004. Since 2001, his news releases brag, he has earmarked more than $5 billion for Alaska projects, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

He's been so successful directing federal money that Alaska's governor says he may hire a public-relations firm to fix the image of Alaska as a "greedy state."

And Stevens can play rough. Despite denials from his staff, he retaliates — and doesn't mind waiting years to do so.

The enmity between Stevens and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is almost mythic on the Hill. A former aide to Stevens recalls being trapped in a Capitol elevator with the two men as they argued through four floors.

During heated hearings on media-ownership concentration in 2003, McCain did a slow, obvious double-take when Stevens suggested letting state utility regulators make the decisions on joint control of local newspapers and TV stations.

When Stevens became chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee last year, many assumed he would give McCain, the outgoing chairman, a pro forma subcommittee post.


Stevens restructured the committee, leaving nothing for McCain to chair.

"Ted is the master of Senate politics," said former Sen. John Breaux, D-La. "Some people acquire power and never use it.

"But if you're in a position to use power, then shame on you if you don't," he said. "Ted can do more with a wink and a nod than many do in a decade in the Senate."

Thomas Mann, political guru at the Brookings Institution, recently savaged Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as unique in his lack of interest and understanding of the Senate.

But Stevens lives and breathes the chamber, Mann said in an interview.

"Stevens has built a long and successful career in the Senate by taking full advantage of his seniority and his toughness to advance his legislative interests," Mann said.

Stevens says that he was taught by a list of history-making parliamentarians and power players.

"I've lived on the floor a hell of a lot," he said.

But as pork becomes a political piñata, Stevens has found himself a target for Republicans as well as Democrats. Coburn's attack on the bridge to nowhere rankled Stevens, but that was Coburn's strategy.

"I went to Coburn and said, 'I can't understand this. You're taking all the money from my state,' " Stevens recalled.

According to Stevens, Coburn replied: "I know you've won, but you've really lost. From now on, you're the target."

But if Oklahoma finds itself needing a bridge or two, Stevens' chits may count more than Coburn's snits.

Once-strong bond

As Stevens tells it, Alaska and Washington were outsiders in 1960s Washington, D.C., with their collective noses pressed up against the window in Congress.

But the collaboration of Stevens and legendary Washington Sens. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson produced money, power and a personal bond.

Stevens helped Magnuson push through the 1976 fisheries act that established regulations to preserve commercial fishing along the Northwest coast.

He helped win money to add a third runway to Sea-Tac International Airport, worked to get Alaska Airlines gate space at Reagan National Airport in D.C. and supported expansion of the Port of Tacoma.

He has also directed billions in defense spending to Boeing, his No. 1 corporate contributor.

When the company sought a $23 billion contract for new Air Force refueling tankers, it was Stevens — not Cantwell or Sen. Patty Murray — who sneaked it into the Senate, bypassing the normal hearings and contract process.

Boeing likely would have the contract now if McCain hadn't blocked the deal.

Blaming his recent falling out with Washington state on Cantwell's intransigence, Stevens practices the ancient art of divide and conquer.

He praises Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, for working cooperatively with him on issues important to the region.

"My God, the things that come up on a daily basis where I bump into Patty in the subway, or pick up the phone and call Norm," he said.

Stevens is part of the older Senate generation that likes colleagues to show deference to longtime leaders.

Murray, a liberal Democrat, does just that.

When Coburn tried to cut Stevens' bridge from the budget, Murray quietly strong-armed other senators to support Stevens, telling them their own projects could be at risk.

Later, she managed to save a $500,000 appropriation for the Seattle Art Museum's sculpture park that also was under fire from Coburn.

Dicks says that working with Stevens is a necessary art.

"It's an important part of politics for the Northwest," he said. "Ted is smart, and he knows how to play the game here better than almost anyone. And he has been good for us many times."

Fading clout?

Is his power slipping?

"Stevens threatened some fellow senators in ways that did not go down well," Mann said of the ANWR vote in December. "The contemporary Senate is less amenable to the type of clout that Stevens has exercised."

Indeed, he appeared to be losing on more fronts than ANWR last year.

In September, Roll Call newspaper ripped his chairmanship of the Commerce Committee for disorganization and missed cues.

Stevens' gift as a dealmaker among a small group of senators served him well on the Appropriations Committee, which he chaired for several years until 2004. But in the Commerce Committee, where legislation is made, the process is more public and success is built through consensus among larger coalitions of senators.

He got into another contretemps last year when he pushed for one of his former aides to become president of the National Association of Broadcasters, an influential lobby.

In another age, the broadcasters might not have bucked Stevens, whose committee oversees the airwaves. But they chose the head of the beer wholesalers association instead. Stevens was said to be surprised and miffed.

But he seems to have regrouped.

He is rewriting the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a mammoth bill that includes billion-dollar deregulatory provisions for TV, radio and telephone companies. The Internet and Microsoft are all part of the equation.

He has also become outspoken against indecency on TV, holding numerous hearings and threatening action against what he considers smut in popular entertainment.

ANWR is back, too.

Last month, the U.S. House voted to approve oil drilling in the Arctic refuge. The issue likely will go back to the Senate, where Cantwell and Stevens could face off again.

Some members of Washington state's D.C. contingent say Cantwell should try to smooth over the hard feelings and call Stevens or send him a note.

He doubts that will happen, noting the antagonism in Congress between the two parties.

"It is necessary to have across-the-aisle relationships," Stevens said. "It is not an aisle now, it is a canyon.

"Build a bridge across that one," he said, smiling, "and that is a bridge to nowhere."

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

Wearing one of his "Incredible Hulk" ties, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, leaves the Senate floor in December after losing a round in his long battle to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES)
Ex-Sens. Warren Magnuson, left, and Henry "Scoop" Jackson often worked with Stevens.
Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell, right, and Patty Murray deal with Stevens in different ways. (JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 2003)

His power at work

In Alaska: He has made his home state No. 1 in per capita federal spending: $12,885 per person in 2004.

In Washington state: He has directed billions in defense spending to Boeing, his top corporate contributor, and helped Sea-Tac International Airport's expansion.

What others say: "Ted is the master of Senate politics. Some people acquire power and never use it. But if you're in a position to use power, then shame on you if you don't." — Former Sen. John Breaux, D-La.

Bringing home the bacon

Sen. Ted Stevens has directed billions in federal dollars to Alaska over the years.

• The fiscal year 2006 budget includes more than $1 billion earmarked for parks, energy resources, water, business development and defense in his home state.

• The 2005 long-term federal transportation bill includes $1 billion in direct appropriations for Alaska, including $2.9 million for a documentary on the state's infrastructure.

• Stevens' news releases tout that he has won more than $5 billion in earmarked funds for his state since 2001.

• On average, the state has received $1.80 in federal help for every dollar in taxes Alaskans paid to Washington, D.C.

Source: Taxpayers for Common Sense, Northeast-Midwest Institute calculations, Seattle Times staff researchers Gene Balk and David Turim

Timelines to a collision

Both born in Indianapolis, Sens. Ted Stevens and Maria Cantwell have clashed primarily over energy and environmental issues.

1923: Ted Stevens born in Indianapolis.

Early 1950s: Stevens moves to Alaska to practice law in Fairbanks.

1958: Maria Cantwell born in Indianapolis.

1964: Stevens elected to Alaska House of Representatives.

1968: Stevens appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy, then is elected.

1968: Cantwell celebrates her 10th birthday.

1976: Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson and Stevens push through the Magnuson Fisheries Act.

1980: Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Stevens work together to create the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

1981: Cantwell graduates from Miami of Ohio university.

1981: Stevens becomes ranking Republican on Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He now chairs the subcommittee.

1986: Cantwell elected to Washington state House.

1991: Stevens loses an attempt to open ANWR to oil drilling.

1992: Cantwell elected to U.S. House.

1995: Cantwell, after losing her House seat, joins software start-up RealNetworks.

1997: Stevens becomes chairman of Senate Appropriations Committee.

2000: Cantwell elected to U.S. Senate.

2005: Stevens becomes chairman of Senate Commerce Committee.