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One Man's Maverick, Another Man's Turncoat

Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) leaving the Capitol on Thursday. (Reuters)

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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 29, 1999; Page C1

    The Day After felt like bombardment. Hundreds and hundreds of calls and e-mails. Drop-bys, sidewalk encounters, corridor chats. A raining parade of feedback about two votes that said one thing: Russ Feingold is the only Democrat in the United States Senate unwilling to commit to acquitting President Clinton in his impeachment trial.

    A big deal.

    The pundits called him a "renegade" and a "maverick" and "an individualist." Compliments. They called him pretty much what they've always called him – someone who goes his own way even when the lights are hot. The voters of Wisconsin, however, who elected him to a second term last year, weren't all in the same chorus. A great many let him have it. They screamed at whoever would listen: Lowly Senate staffers. Democratic Party officials. City aldermen. And the screamers weren't just Wisconsinites. They phoned and e-mailed from all over this great land.

    Feingold is just prolonging the country's agony. Feingold is abandoning the president (who carried Wisconsin, by the way). Feingold is a turncoat.

    Feingold himself listened to some of these calls, picked up nine of them from voice mail. "Five were angry, four were positive. There is no middle ground."

    All this over back-to-back votes on Wednesday afternoon: First, he voted against a Democratic motion to dismiss the charges against Clinton. Then he voted for a Republican proposal to depose three witnesses in the trial and thus prolong it.

    The vote tally otherwise was strictly along party lines. So Feingold was all by his lonesome.

    "It's one of the hardest votes I've ever taken," he said yesterday. "But it's been good to get people to realize that I was talking about process and not leaning toward conviction."

    Meaning no "short-circuit" of the trial.

    Feingold put out a three-page letter to explain – a struggling piece of work that ebbed and flowed and ascended and descended and tried to arrive at one meaningful conclusion on one essential question: As to whether he would vote to convict the president and remove him from office, "I have not reached a decision on that question."

    The letter was much harder to translate over the phone lines at Feingold Central, Suite 716 in the Hart Senate Office Building. Two receptionists wearing headphones were busy, busy, busy.

    "I went out to talk to my front-desk people and shook their hands and thanked them," Feingold said. "They couldn't interrupt because they were both in the midst of long phone conversations."

    Senate offices are not frantic by nature. They don't hum like a hospital emergency room. They are rather quiet – like the waiting area for the orthodontist. Which is not to say that senators aren't busy, but all of the important stuff occurs out of earshot, in the warren of spaces behind the lobby that greets the public.

    What the public sees when it walks through Feingold's glass doors is a plaque on the wall: Contract Between Russ Feingold and the People of Wisconsin.

    It's an original. The thing is signed and dated Nov. 3, 1991. It reads:

    "1. I will rely on Wisconsin citizens for most of my campaign contributions.

    "2. I will live in Middleton, Wisconsin. My children will go to school here and I will spend most of my time here in Wisconsin.

    "3. I will accept no pay raise during my six year term in office."

    That little framed contract is one reason Feingold is considered a novelty in the Senate and back home.

    But yesterday, he was the guy – the guy who had broken party ranks.

    "We had one Democrat willing to stand up to his whole caucus," boasted Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), as though he were Feingold's sponsor. "Let me tell you, that's a big-time thing."

    "It's difficult to do," Feingold admitted. "This issue was emotional."

    He felt the heat.

    "I certainly felt a fair amount of pressure," he said, "to try to make it unanimous with the Democrats. I always prefer to be with the group than not. So it was difficult in that manner because feelings were high."

    There weren't threats. "No angry calls from senators," he explained, but rather a kind of "peer pressure." Though he had informed Democrats how he was leaning in advance, "it was clear it was not precisely the outcome people wanted."

    They wanted votes of 55 to 45, not 54 to 46. Republicans win either way, but Democrats wanted that united front. Nonetheless, Feingold said, "everyone has treated me in a very civil manner."

    "I think he followed his conscience," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who spoke with Feingold. "I certainly respect his decision."

    "Like everybody else, he's entitled to his opinion," said Wisconsin's senior senator, Herb Kohl (D). "Do I think it will have any long-lasting negative consequences? No."

    The only negative consequences will be to the brain cells of Feingold's staff, who were in reaction hell yesterday. They were harried, harried, harried.

    Exactly how many calls came in and how many of the calls were favorable and unfavorable, no one seemed to know.

    "I'm not sure," said Feingold press secretary Mary Bottari. "We're busy answering the phones, not tallying." At one point Wednesday, the calls were running 50-50, Bottari said. She said she would call back yesterday evening with an update, but she didn't. Too busy answering phones, no doubt.

    There was some good news, though, in the form of Scott Muschett, who stopped by Feingold's office yesterday. At 23, he had been a Clinton campaign volunteer and an intern for Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and now he was looking for a job. He left his re»sume» for the busy receptionists and his sentiments.

    "If you need anyone to clean your toilets or anything," he said, call him. "And even if you don't, just tell Senator Feingold I'm so proud of him."

    Then he left.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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