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Angry Georgia senator is a pariah among his fellow Democrats

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

In a recent speech to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Democrat Zell Miller recalled the day he took his seat in the U.S. Senate. A veteran senator took him aside and told the former two-term governor of Georgia he could expect to go through three stages in adjusting to Washington -- disbelief, anger and acceptance. After 18 months in the Senate, Miller said he is still in the anger stage and vows to stay there. "I doubt I will ever be able to change the way things work in Washington," he told his audience, "but I am doing my best to make sure that Washington doesn't change me."

Some Democrats, however, believe Washington already has changed him -- and for the worse. He is not the Zell Miller they thought they knew -- a progressive and innovative governor and fiery populist politician who could give Republicans fits. In Washington, he is giving his own party fits.

Zell Miller is the Senate's angry man -- angry because of the "petty partisanship" on both sides of the aisle; angry because of "the thoughtless and needless waste" of taxpayers' money; angry because the influence of "big money" approaches bribery; angry at a process "where 59 votes out of 100 cannot pass a bill because 41 votes out of 100 can defeat it."

It's not clear why Washington has churned such anger in him. Miller sounds as if, in his long career in state politics, he never encountered hypocrisy or partisanship or the corrupting influence of political money. Is the way Washington works really all that different from the way things worked in the Georgia Legislature? Maybe the problem is that after having been Georgia's chief executive, Miller is chafing over being just one of 100 senators. Maybe it's that Miller just doesn't feel at home with Senate Democrats, most of whom are more liberal than the mountain man from Georgia. Or maybe the system in Washington really is as rotten as Miller thinks.

Some Democrats must be wondering if the Zell Miller they see in the Senate is an impostor. After Republican Paul Coverdale died suddenly in July 2000, Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Miller to fill the vacancy, and Democrats were delighted over picking up another seat in a chamber controlled by Republicans. They remembered the Zell Miller who nominated Bill Clinton for president at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. The speech was populist barn-burner, a rip-snorter that brought the delegates to their feet with a roar. Miller was Clinton's favorite governor and a close friend, and Democrats assumed the Georgian could be counted on to give the Republicans hell in Washington, just as he had in his convention speech.

As it turned out, however, Miller has been giving his own party hell. He has become President Bush's most reliable Democratic supporter in the upper chamber and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's biggest headache. In a Senate where his party has a one-vote majority, Miller can -- and has -- made the difference between victory and defeat for the Democrats.

To the dismay and bewilderment of most of his Democratic colleagues, Miller has sided with Bush on nearly every controversial issue to come along -- education reform, tax cuts, trade, the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general, bankruptcy legislation and oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Even Clinton must be wondering what has gotten into his old friend Zell. Miller said of Clinton's response to repeated terrorist attacks on American targets at home and abroad: "It was a wimpy response so totally inadequate I was ashamed." Ouch!

Although he supported Al Gore for president in 2000, Miller, an ex-Marine, makes it clear that he couldn't be happier with the current commander in chief. "We have the right man in the White House," he said. "George W. Bush has been magnificent. He is surrounded by the most experienced, tested group of advisers we could possibly have."

Most Democrats can agree with Miller's salute to the country's war-time leader, but they cannot understand why he would break with his own party on so many domestic issues, especially on tax and economic policies. Last year, Miller joined Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, in sponsoring the president's $1.35-trillion dollar tax cut plan, which Daschle has blamed for worsening the country's economic recession. Is Daschle saying Miller and the 11 other Democrats who voted for the Bush tax cuts are responsible for the country's economic woes? That's the way Miller sees it, and it doesn't sit well with him.

If Miller has a complaint about the president, it is that he was too quick to compromise with Senate Democrats on tax cuts. "Unfortunately," Miller told his chamber of commerce audience, "the tax cut was compromised on its way to final passage. What started out as a broad, immediate and permanent tax cut became one where some of the tax relief is delayed by several years. Then, to add insult to injury, the whole thing is set to be repealed in 2010."

Miller and Gramm have teamed up again -- this time to push legislation to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and cut the capital gains tax rate from 20 to 15 percent. Some of his Democratic colleagues can barely contain their anger.

It's a wonder President Bush doesn't kiss this Democrat. Few Republicans have shown more tax-cut spirit than Miller, or challenged the Democrats more sharply on issues Daschle hopes will be at the center of this year's congressional elections. Democrats can't shut him up or change his mind. They will not surprised to see excerpts from Miller's speeches in Republican campaign ads.

Miller may be a pariah among Washington Democrats, but back home in Georgia his approval ratings are second only to the president's. No one knows if Miller, who is 70, plans to seek another term in 2004, but if he does, he is considered a shoo-in for re-election. That makes him a politically free man, the rarest political bird in Washington.

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