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CURWOOD: Senator Lincoln Chafee, the mild-mannered moderate from Rhode Island, has quietly compiled one of the strongest pro-environment records in the Republican Party. He's for action on climate change and against drilling in the Arctic Refuge ? votes that put him out of step with President Bush, and have earned him some enemies in his own party. Conservative activists support the opponent to Senator Chafee in the upcoming Rhode Island Republican primary, a close contest that could end Lincoln Chafee's political career. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.
[SENATE HALL AMBIENT SOUND]
YOUNG: Jennifer Hughes Martini teaches ecology at Brown University. She recently took a break from the classroom to visit Congress.
MARTIN: I'm on Capitol Hill to help deliver a letter from 5,700 scientists that are very concerned about the Endangered Species Act.
YOUNG: Martini and her fellow scientists are concerned about a dramatic overhaul of the Endangered Species Act narrowly passed by the House of Representatives. The scientists say the bill would hinder their role in protecting species, and they want the Senate to stop it. Martini is counting on her home state Senator Lincoln Chafee.
Senator Chafee speaks out against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
MARTINI: Senator Chafee has always been a supporter of the Endangered Species Act. And he's actually on a subcommittee that would advance a senate bill, so this is why we'd particularly like to talk to him and express our support.
YOUNG: While many of his Republican colleagues are eager to re-write the Act, Chafee has instead taken a slow, deliberate approach, with numerous hearings to decide what, if any, changes to make.
CHAFEE: I was surprised at the lack of anger and vociferous outrage at the Endangered Species Act from what I heard. So I think the Act is performing better over time and there might not be a need, a great need, for any kind of drastic reform.
YOUNG: Chafee appears unlikely to let a bill radically reforming the Act to pass. It's familiar territory for Chafee, whose spot on the environment committee often makes him the decisive vote on important bills on clean air, water and energy.
CHAFEE: Without my vote it's a tie and fails, so I'm a critical vote. That's what happened with clean air, Clear Skies legislation. It happened with the refinery bill and now has the potential on Endangered Species. Many of these are, I argue, Republican initiatives. Endangered Species passed President Nixon, so I argue that our legacy as Republicans is for a strong environmental movement.
YOUNG: Chafee's supporters applaud his stand to uphold the landmark law on endangered species. David Jenkins is with a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection.
JENKINS: Senator Chafee is in a unique position to try to stop this bad thing from coming over and getting passed by the senate as well. So if he can block that, that's great. It's a wonderful victory for the environment and everybody who cares about it.
YOUNG: But Jenkins' group is a minority within a party dominated by conservatives eager to rewrite environmental law. That could make Chafee himself a bit of an endangered species. Moderate Republicans once roamed the GOP landscape. But these days they are rare political animals, and sometimes in the sights of conservatives gunning for their seats.
KNIGHT: I would say I would rather see anybody but Chafee in that chair.
YOUNG: That's Peyton Knight with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a group affiliated with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Senator Lincoln Chafee tours the site of a Rhode Island dredging project.
KNIGHT: I kind of see him as a green monkey wrench on that committee, and like a monkey wrench, it's a foreign object that obstructs a bunch of working parts that were made to work together. Senator Chafee has behaved more like a liberal northeast Democrat than anything resembling a Republican.
YOUNG: It's not just Chafee's environment votes that have conservatives upset. Chafee voted against the war in Iraq and the president's tax cuts. And he opposed confirmation of Judge Sam Alito to the Supreme Court. Conservative bloggers are slamming Chafee as a traitor to the party who fails to support the president.
But Scott McKay, a veteran political reporter for the Providence Journal, says Chafee is well-adapted to his political habitat in Rhode Island ? a state that votes overwhelmingly for Democrats.
MCKAY: In general, in Rhode Island a lot of the positions that Senator Chafee espouses are in sync with what Rhode Islanders feel, but not necessarily in sync with those of his own party. In other words, we're talking about a navy blue state here, a state that basically went for Kerry and a state that historically has only elected since the Great Depression two Republicans to the United States Senate, and both of their names were Chafee.
YOUNG: Lincoln Chafee took the senate seat his late father once held. Both found success with moderate policies and strong environmental protection that appeal to Independents. Nearly half Rhode Island's registered voters are Independents. But Mckay says Chafee is now vulnerable to a challenge from his right in the Republican primary election in September.
Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey offers what he calls a real conservative alternative to the moderate Chafee. Laffey's picking up serious financial support from conservative groups like the Club for Growth, which claims it has rounded up $300,000 in campaign donations for Laffey. Reporter McKay says Chafee could be in trouble.
MCKAY: I think every liberal Republican these days, every liberal to moderate Republican, is an endangered species. We don't have those kind of politicians anymore. There are really very few of them, and Chafee is one of the few of these, what the conservative base calls "RINOS."
YOUNG: "RINO" ? it's a slur of an acronym tossed around by conservative critics. Chafee says he's heard it a lot lately.
CHAFEE: Sure, of course, RINO ? Republican in name only, R-I-N-O. But I make my arguments and that's my challenge, make my arguments right back. All my so-called traitorous votes: the Iraq war. Well, how are we doing in Iraq right now? How much is it costing us? Were there weapons of mass destruction? On the tax cuts, are you happy with our deficits? Clear Skies. You don't think we want clean air for our children and grandchildren? And global warming and recognizing that human activity might be causing this climate change. Don't you think we ought to be doing something? So, that's my challenge, to make these arguments to my fellow Republicans which I'm willing to do.
YOUNG: Chafee's environmental supporters wonder if they will keep a key conservation vote in the senate, or if that rare political animal, the moderate Republican, will be one step closer to extinction. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.
Senator Lincoln Chafee's homepage