Politics & Policy

Mods Vs. Santorum

Another battle with the GOP's liberal wing.

The news can’t be terribly surprising, or pleasing, to Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum: A handful of his Republican colleagues have joined Democrats in denouncing his comments about gays.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine on Tuesday became the first Republican senator to publicly criticize Santorum’s remarks, which she called “regrettable” and “wrong.”

On Wednesday, two other New England Republicans — Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine — joined the chorus of criticism.

”Discrimination and bigotry have no place in our society, and I believe Sen. Santorum’s unfortunate remarks undermine Republican principles of inclusion and opportunity,” Snowe said.

“I was very disappointed to read Sen. Santorum’s comments on privacy and homosexuals,” Chafee said. “I thought his choice of comparisons was unfortunate and the premise that the right of privacy does not exist [was] just plain wrong. Sen. Santorum’s views are not held by this Republican and many others in our party.”

Appearing Wednesday on MSNBC, Sen. John McCain said Santorum should apologize for his remarks, although the Arizonan stopped short of criticizing the Senate Republican Conference chairman, who is the No. 3 GOP senator.

So far, most other Republican senators have kept their mouths shut, refusing to publicly denounce or support their embattled colleague. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania both have released statements standing by Santorum.

Criticism from the Republican party’s liberal wing is nothing new. It reflects a long-standing GOP rift on social issues. But coming amidst another intra-party feud — this one over some of the same senators’ opposition to President Bush’s proposed tax cut — the sniping over Santorum is highlighting divisions within the party.

Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America’s Culture and Family Institute, has this advice to Republicans who rebuke Santorum: “Maybe they ought to think about switching parties.”

“It shows great disloyalty to their party to join the sworn enemies in calling for the head” of Santorum, Knight says. “They’re doing their party a great disservice. Frist ought to give them a rap on the knuckles.”

Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, calls the New England senators “Republicans in name only” and says they represent “the Franco wing of the party.”

“They’re much in the same spirit of Sen. [Jim] Jeffords” of Vermont, Connor says.

Of course, Connor doesn’t actually want Chafee, Collins, and Snowe to join Jeffords and bolt the GOP, as liberal outfits like TomPaine.com have urged them to do. “From a pragmatic standpoint, we know what the impacts are when there’s a change of the status,” Connor says.

So far the New England Republicans have rejected entreaties to switch parties, and the sparring over Santorum seems unlikely to represent the final straw.

But the Republican senators’ criticism is likely to prolong the pseudo-scandal for at least another day or two. That could complicate the White House’s effort to sell its tax-cut and domestic-policy agenda.

Bush and Republican leaders “don’t want to spend time now talking about gay rights,” says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “The president wants to be able to dictate what the debate is about. … In the short term, this is a major annoyance and distraction.”

“There is tremendous anger at Santorum, even in the White House,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato.

Barring an unexpected wave of criticism from additional Republican senators, the controversy probably will blow over, with limited long-term consequences for Santorum, Bush, and the Republican party.

“I think that six months from now, we’ll be on to eight other controversies,” Rothenberg said.

David Enrich is a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C.

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