Sen. Ted Stevens, whose seat is threatened by a federal investigation, has helped Washington Democrats get millions of dollars in project funding.
WASHINGTON — The potential demise of Sen. Ted Stevens’ long career amid a federal investigation into alleged public corruption has provoked mixed emotions in D.C., and nearly complete silence among Democrats.
Though he has vehemently fought Democrats on a wide range of energy and environmental issues, the Alaska Republican has long-standing personal and professional relationships with many in the opposing party.
Washington state, in particular, could lose a powerful ally if he is forced to step down.
From his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Stevens, 83, has agreed to millions of dollars in funding requests from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, for transportation, ports and conservation projects in the past decade.
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“I don’t think he ever turned down a transportation-fund request from Sen. Murray,” said Stevens’ former top aide Lisa Sutherland.
News of the investigation, including the FBI’s search of Stevens’ Alaska home last month, has ricocheted around the Hill in recent weeks and muzzled normally loquacious politicians.
The investigation appears focused in part on the involvement of Bill Allen, the former VECO Corp. chief executive and Stevens campaign contributor, in the remodeling of the senator’s home. Last week, news reports said the FBI is investigating federal contracts to VECO — an international contracting firm — involving Arctic research, an important issue to Stevens.
The Democratic National Committee, which gleefully blasted former Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham, of California, when he was first linked to bribery allegations, did not issue a statement about Stevens.
On Capitol Hill, no one will say much publicly about Stevens and the impact of the investigation. Staffers for Murray, who in the past have touted her good relations with Stevens, declined to comment.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, epitomized the Democrats’ response when he casually told the newspaper Roll Call, “Many investigations go nowhere,” and declined to criticize Stevens or ask him to step aside from his committee chairmanships.
Republicans, for their part, are offering tepid support. With Stevens under fire, lawmakers could be jockeying to replace him on two key committees: Defense Appropriations, a money pot with policy power; and the Commerce Committee, which oversees fishing and telecommunications.
But GOP chiefs have told members to avoid backroom machinations for now. The official message from Republican leaders, said several staffers, is “courtesy.”
In 39 years, Stevens has become one of the most powerful people in the Senate. From 2003 to 2006, he held the Appropriations and Commerce committees under his thumb with a combination of seniority and detailed knowledge of Senate rules.
Over the decades, he also forged a close friendship with Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, of Hawaii, who is deeply respected on the Hill. The two made a separate peace amid partisan barrages in Congress.
Stevens is known for his blustery, sometimes combative demeanor in public.
But behind the scenes, he’s acted as a dealmaker in an increasingly fractious Senate, orchestrating compromises and pushing legislation through committee.
Stevens’ work on the Appropriations Committee, pushing earmarks to fund his projects and backing those of other senators, may help explain why Democrats aren’t celebrating his potential fall.
Democratic colleagues on the committee, including Sens. Reid; Murray; Dick Durbin, of Illinois; and Dianne Feinstein, of California, have allowed many of Stevens’ earmarks in recent years.
In return, he’s supported projects for their districts, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“Stevens has a lot of chits out there,” Ellis said. “When appropriators are attacked, they circle the wagons.”
In 2005, Murray came to Stevens’ defense during a floor fight over money for his “bridge to nowhere.”
She twisted arms of Democrats to get their support for the $223 million bridge to Gravina Island, home to 50 people and the Ketchikan airport, thereby becoming Stevens’ enforcer.
Stevens and Inouye worked together with Murray to set up the Boeing Air Force tanker deal in 2002 that would have been worth more than $20 billion, if it had been successful.
The deal would have allowed the Air Force to lease air refueling tankers from Boeing without going through a lengthy contract approval process.
He has managed many other contracts for Boeing from his committees, and the company has been his top contributor. Even in the minority, Stevens still has clout on the Appropriations Committee, said Ellis.
Meantime, Inouye, Stevens’ best friend of a half-century, is said to be devastated.
In April, at a Republican ceremony honoring Stevens, Inouye delighted the crowd when he said, “We call each other brothers.”
“I know this is a violation of our party rules,” he continued, “but I have contributed to Ted’s campaign, and he has contributed to my campaign.”
He and Stevens have been bookends on key panels. Inouye chairs the Commerce Committee and named Stevens vice chair, an honorific step up from ranking Republican; Inouye chairs the Defense Appropriations Committee, where Stevens also is the ranking Republican.
Inouye has not spoken about the investigation.
“It is very sad for Sen. Inouye, because he and Sen. Stevens have been close friends for so long,” said Inouye’s spokesman Mike Yuen.
Together, they pushed millions of dollars to Washington state in the wake of the loss of legendary Democratic Sens. Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson, and they still do.
Stevens has maintained a friendship with Jackson’s and Magnuson’s former staffers — including Dicks, Denny Miller and Bill Van Ness.
Miller and Van Ness are successful federal lobbyists whose clients — including Boeing, various fishery concerns, ports and several cities — have benefited from Stevens’ aid.
In 2000, when the Conservation and Reinvestment Act failed to pass Congress, Dicks devised a plan to get a version through the House and Senate appropriations committees.
The bill added $2.4 billion nationally to preserve and maintain wilderness and parks, with $60 million going to Washington state.
Dicks, who sits on the House Interior Appropriations panel, turned to Stevens for help. Slade Gorton was running for re-election that year, so Stevens got the bill through but let Gorton take credit.
“Ted is smart, and he knows how to play the game here better than almost anyone,” Dicks said in an interview last year. “He has been good for us many times.”
One person who has had a less-cordial relationship with Stevens is Washington’s Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has been a target of Stevens’ ire. Their relations were so stormy two years ago that Inouye stepped in to referee.
Stevens and Cantwell have been at odds over energy conservation (she wants more of it), and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (she doesn’t want any of it).
Meanwhile, a longtime GOP staffer said Republicans may have found a silver lining in Stevens’ cloud: If the Stevens scandal lingers into 2008, voters may be alienated enough to turn against the incumbents in Congress and “throw the bums out.”
Now, however, the “bums” in charge are Democrats.
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org