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Feingold and Kerry: Unlikely allies

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June 27, 2006


One epitomizes the Washington political establishment as the Democratic Party’s most recent presidential nominee. The other is the quintessential Democratic outsider, proud to be the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act.

Notwithstanding their different histories, Sens. John Kerry and Russ Feingold joined forces last week to push a proposal that would have required troops to leave Iraq by July of next year. And they may soon have something else in common: Both are considering presidential races in 2008.

“It seems to be a marriage of convenience,” said Democratic consultant Dan Payne, a former Kerry Senate campaign strategist. “Feingold wants to be considered of presidential stature, and Kerry wants to look like he can work with others to reach a compromise.”

Both Kerry, D-Mass., and Feingold, D-Wis., insist that politics has nothing to do with it.

“Not on subjects of war and peace,” Kerry said in a telephone interview. “Not on subjects that involve young Americans in uniform in harm’s way. As far as I’m concerned, the only consideration is what’s the best policy, how do you advance the security of our country, and what do we do to do it?”

Feingold, who voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002, last year became the first senator to call for a troop withdrawal timetable. He said he didn’t mind that many news stories referred to the “Kerry” proposal.

“I’m not in this game for ego, and I’m not in this game for trying to figure out who should go first and who should go second,” Feingold said in a separate telephone interview. “This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of our national security. And I was proud to join with another senator whom I respect to do this.”

Ann Marie Hauser, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, mocked the coupling.

“Whether it’s John Kerry’s indecisiveness or Russ Feingold’s extremism, Democrats across the board support an approach that results in surrendering to our enemy,” Hauser said. “But as 2008 looms, it is interesting to watch these two senators trip over each other as they rush to the far left of their party.”

While the Senate defeated, on a 60-39 vote, a nonbinding resolution that would have urged the administration to start withdrawing troops by year’s end, the Feingold-Kerry proposal went down on an 86-13 vote. By Feingold’s standard, that was progress.

“You know, I was the only one in this position a year ago,” he said. “Now you have 13 senators, including our presidential standard-bearer, John Kerry.”

Feingold certainly doesn’t mind standing alone. In 2001, he cast the only vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 federal law that greatly expanded the government’s authority to investigate terrorism suspects at the cost, according to its critics, of some civil liberties. His proposal to censure President Bush for a warrantless surveillance program has attracted only three co-sponsors _ one of them Kerry.

Those positions have made Feingold popular among liberal anti-Bush activists.

Feingold has been openly critical of Democrats who voted to authorize the Iraq war, even those who have since said that vote was a mistake _ a group that includes Kerry.

But Feingold said that was one reason he was so encouraged to work with Kerry.

“Let’s face it _ he was our standard-bearer, he had voted for the war,” Feingold said. “And yet, I was able to bring him together with me to do exactly what I’ve believed all along, that this wasn’t a good idea, and that we needed to reverse course.”

Kerry reiterated his position, dating back to the 2004 presidential election, that he would not have gone to war had he been president _ “wrong war, wrong place and wrong time.”

But he added: “Russ made the right vote, I made the wrong vote, it’s that simple.”

Feingold said the two men started working together on the issue when they both staked a position in meetings with fellow Democrats calling for a timetable to bring the troops back. Neither could persuade the group to go along.

“So we just decided to cooperate in order to strengthen our hand, and not just be operating on our own,” Feingold recalled.

“We’ve worked together on a lot of things,” Kerry said. “We share a lot of strong beliefs about how badly the system needs to be reformed, and how screwed up Washington is.”

Payne, the former Kerry strategist, said the alliance poses risks for Feingold and Kerry.

“It’s a trick for both of them because there’s the potential that Kerry can look like he’s backtracking, and Feingold has to be careful not to appear to be co-opted or bought off,” he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press