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Senate debate may show similarities

On some issues, Harris, Nelson aren’t far apart.

Published November 1, 2006


WASHINGTON — He’s a reliable Democrat. She’s a reliable Republican. He’s measured and often wooden. She’s aggressive and animated. He is pragmatic, she is more ideological.

But despite appearing to be polar opposites in many ways, Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Katherine Harris, the woman who wants to unseat him, find common ground on many major issues, from free trade to foreign policy to tax cuts.
Tonight, during their second televised debate, they’ll have one more chance to convince voters their way is the best way.

Bill Nelson, Democrat

After a spate of lost or stolen personal data from banks and data brokers last year, Nelson offered a bill.
When flight students from the Middle East crashed hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001, Nelson offered a bill.
And when U.S. Customs confiscated low-cost prescription drugs Florida seniors had ordered from Canada, Nelson offered a bill.

Within the U.S. Senate, there are two main styles of lawmaking: working behind the scenes to influence legislation, and throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

Put Nelson, 64, firmly in the latter camp. During his first term in the Senate, Nelson has developed a reputation for legislating aggressively on a handful of issues dear to Florida voters, particularly drug prices, veterans and military benefits, privacy and offshore gas and oil drilling.

Often, as with the bill he filed requiring companies to tell customers if their Social Security numbers, birth dates and other details are lost or stolen, he is only days behind the headlines.

Friends call it being responsive. Opponents call it grand-standing. Either way, Nelson says his consumer-orientated approach is what voters want.

“Where you have the opportunity to influence the public debate, I’ve tried,” Nelson said. “In a good number of cases I’ve been able to not only influence the debate, but influence the outcome.’’

He has developed a centrist voting record, and he frequently works with Republicans. But his philosophy toward governing is far from conservative, demonstrating an abiding belief in government as a force for good.

In the past two-year session of Congress alone, Nelson filed about 40 bills, most on consumer-protection or Florida-centric issues. Included among those were a bill to give the federal government, rather than states, the power to permit offshore oil drilling (failed); requiring the Navy to keep 12 active aircraft carriers, which saved the USS John F. Kennedy at Jacksonville (passed); and increasing the amount of time seniors have to apply for the Medicare prescription drug benefit (failed).

He recently claimed victory after the U.S. Customs Service said it would no longer confiscate medications shipped from Canada.

Most of the issues he champions are not particularly controversial, and many win bipartisan support. Nor is he usually a big player on burning national issues, such as immigration or the war in Iraq.

There are exceptions. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Nelson helped block President Bush’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Nelson says Bolton did a poor job with Iran and North Korea as the nation’s top arms control officer.

But when facing a skirmish in the culture war, he generally is content to take a back seat. His desire to walk a fine line between left and right -— a must for a Democratic senator in a conservative Southern state -— makes him maddeningly deliberative.

Take gay marriage. Nelson says he opposes it, but he also opposed a constitutional amendment to ban it, saying it should be left to the states. A plausible position, but not very satisfying for either side.

He supported John G. Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court, which pleased conservatives, but he voted against Justice Samuel Alito, which pleased liberals.

On immigration, he pushed for tougher border security. But he declined for weeks to commit on whether illegal immigrants should be given a route to citizenship, as espoused by Florida’s Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. Eventually he joined Martinez.

And when Congress was debating whether to let the federal courts review the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case, Nelson spoke neither for nor against it. Instead, he introduced a bill to make Medicare pay for a consultation about advanced directives.

Nelson chafes at the criticism that he isn’t a leader on national issues.

“Whenever somebody says that, don’t let them belittle things like privacy or sexual predators, don’t let them belittle any of those issues that in the composite make this country what it ought to be.’’

Katherine Harris, Republican

To some critics, Harris’ name conjures images of a partisan lightweight. But to those in the Capitol, she’s one of many junior members of Congress trying to make a name for herself.

Harris, 49, has spent much of her two terms in the House as many other young members do — focusing on her district and establishing her voting record.

She has sponsored two dozen bills since arriving in 2002, most designed with her home region of southwest Florida in mind.

Among those were bills aimed at prohibiting drilling off the coast of Florida, authorizing more judges in the southwest part of the state, expressing condolences to the victims of the 2005 hurricane season and renaming a Longboat Key post office for a veteran who died in 2001.

She proposed Carlie’s Law in memory of a Sarasota girl murdered in 2004, calling for harsher probation and sentencing guidelines and a national sex offender registry. It did not pass, but on the campaign trail Harris takes credit for a broader child protection bill passed earlier this year.

Harris, founder of the Gulf of Mexico congressional caucus, brought federal money to the Sarasota area, especially for the arts community.

Her biggest victory: passing a bill, first proposed by the White House, to assist first-time home buyers. It marked a rare win for a freshman.

Harris said the bill would help 4.5-million people, but government auditors said last year that the number was closer to 13,000.

“Everyone told me that it would be so burdensome and difficult to get these things accomplished,” Harris said this year. “I found it quite to the contrary.”

Harris, of Longboat Key, declined to comment for this story. Her campaign did not return messages.

Her conservative record has made her a fairly reliable vote for Republicans and President Bush, though she is sometimes unwilling to go as far as they would like in giving the government more power.

She supported extending the Patriot Act, banning a late-term abortion procedure and allowing government vouchers for private schools. She also opposed allowing the importation of prescription drugs.

“I’m not going to walk that step with regard to partisan politics. I never have,’’ Harris said in a recent Political Connections interview on Bay News 9. “I’m going to stand my ground and do what’s right for the people of Florida.”
Harris serves as a deputy whip, helping Republican leaders persuade colleagues to vote for priority bills. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt has described her as “tireless.’’

“You had a hard time saying no to her when she came to you asking how are you going to vote,’’ Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, said at a campaign event for Harris. “She kept pounding.”

- Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 1, 2006, 07:10:14]

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