AUGUSTA — Frustrated with Congress’ long budget impasse, William S. Cohen tried Monday to put his re-election campaign back in focus for Maine voters, but after only a day of campaigning the GOP senator was called back to Washington for a meeting with President Bush on the gulf crisis.
Although most traditional campaign developments, such as newspaper and special interest group endorsements, are going Cohen’s way, there is growing concern within the senator’s camp that Democratic opponent Neil Rolde will deny Cohen the type of landslide most expected at the beginning of the campaign.
Speaking with reporters at the State House Monday, Cohen explained why he voted against the new congressional budget agreement, urged President Bush to consult with Congress before taking any military action in the Middle East, and marveled that Rolde is likely to spend as much as $2 million on the current Senate race, a sum larger than any other candidate in Maine history.
In past Maine campaigns, such as Robert A.G. Monks’ $1 million Senate campaigns against Margaret Chase Smith in 1972 and against Edmund S. Muskie in 1976, the air was filled with charges that Monks was attempting to “buy” the votes of Mainers.
Cohen stopped well short of that type of complaint during his press conference, but he did go out of his way to remind reporters that Rolde was waging the most expensive campaign in state history.
“He has already spent $1.3 million, which is more than Sen. (George) Mitchell did two years ago … and he is continuing to spend money at the rate of $25,000 per day,” said Cohen. “It’s easier for him,” Cohen said. “All he has to do is write out a check.”
Cohen has raised approximately $1 million, according to the most recent campaign spending records.
Senate financial disclosure statements project Rolde’s personal wealth at between $6 million and $12 million. Rolde inherited most of that wealth from his father, a Massachusetts real estate developer, who died two years ago.
Rolde’s massive television blitz built around the popular health insurance issue, combined with the current wave of anti-incumbent sentiment, has prompted Cohen’s political aides to lessen their own projections of the senator’s vote total in the Nov. 6 election.
Six years ago, Cohen captured nearly 74 percent of the ballots cast in his re-election campaign against Elizabeth Mitchell. Cohen aides now concede they will be lucky to come within 10 percent of Cohen’s 1984 vote total.
“Just to win would be a major accomplishment this year … given the anti-incumbency mood that is apparent in other parts of the country,” Cohen said, admitting that he was frustrated by his inability to get out of Washington and devote more time to his campaign.
Cohen’s votes during the recent congressional budget debate seem consistent with concern of a tightening race. For example, the GOP senator broke with President Bush and Mitchell to vote against the new budget deficit reduction plan. In doing so, Cohen took positions closer to those of other Senate Democrats than of his own party.
“I indicated to President Bush in December of 1989 that I would not support any cuts in the Medicaid program. I also believe it would be a mistake to impose new taxes on gasoline at a time when gas prices are at an all-time high,” Cohen said.
Cohen’s alternative plan for reducing the deficit by $500 million over the next five years would be to impose a surtax on millionaires and increase the top income tax rate from 31 percent to 33 percent, plans that were bitterly opposed by the White House and GOP leaders.
Even though he eventually voted against the budget plan, Cohen praised Mitchell for striking a compromise that was far better than the original struck between the White House and congressional leadership earlier this fall. That proposal would have imposed a 10-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline, a 2-cent-per-gallon tax on heating oil and cuts in Medicaid totaling $44 billion.
“We would have left Washington a month ago with this agreement. In a democracy, we have competing interests. That’s why there was such an intense battle over how the cuts would be allocated,” said Cohen, adding that it was “pressure” on the administration by unhappy lawmakers such as himself and Sen. Mitchell that caused a restructuring of the budget agreement.
During an appearance on the “Today” show and later with reporters in Augusta, Cohen urged President Bush to accede to the War Powers Act, which requires congressional approval for the deployment of U.S. troops overseas for more than 60 days. All presidents since the adoption of the War Powers Act have challenged the constitutionality of the act and federal courts have refused to consider the issue.
Cohen praised Bush’s actions in the Persian Gulf crisis, but said that American public opinion could turn against the White House if the president launched a military attack against Iraq. The White House may have paid attention to Cohen’s comments on the “Today” show because later in the day Bush invited Cohen to join Mitchell and other legislative leaders for a meeting at the White House Monday evening apparently to work out a method for consultations with Congress about future U.S. actions.