Posted: Nov. 18, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As the Congress returned to session this week, U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle quickly returned to form.

Carper, a Democrat in the fourth year of his first term, has been focused on making his mark largely as an institutional man. Castle, a Republican newly elected to his seventh term, is back doing what he is known for -- bucking his leadership.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democrat who is the third member of the Delaware delegation, remains a world unto himself, his own brand name recognized in the political realm and beyond, as much of a regular on the Sunday talk shows as the Senate floor.

It is Carper and Castle who have come to the fore in this brief lame-duck session of the Congress, meeting in between the election and the next term that begins in January.

Carper is in his second tour of duty at the Capitol, where he spent a decade in the House of Representatives before going home for two terms as governor. Without the seniority that provides clout in the Senate, he has been building his political capital with an inside game with moves such as getting himself named to a leadership advisory committee and campaigning for fellow centrist Democrats.

Carper has made a splash this week with a project that landed him in a column written by David S. Broder, the respected political writer at the Washington Post. A trophy like that is good enough to go out in a press release -- and naturally it did.

Carper's project was an orientation program he crafted with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who is a fellow junior senator and ex-governor. They set up a session for nine rookie senators to discuss ways of working across partisan lines to sand away polarization -- "before they get pulled into their party caucuses and start exchanging blows," Carper told Broder.

While Carper was getting attention for peace making, Castle was caught in a clash. He refused to rally around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who was potentially the beneficiary of a rule change that could keep him in leadership if he is indicted.

Previously the House Republicans required their leaders to give up their positions if they were charged with serious crimes. The new rule has a steering committee review indictments and make recommendations on removal.

The change came after three of DeLay's political allies were indicted as part of a Texas investigation into charges of illegal corporate donations in a multi-step effort to elect more Texas Republicans to the Congress. The new rule was explained as a way to protect the leadership from partisan-inspired indictments.

It did not go down well with Castle. He was one of perhaps five Republicans who spoke against the rule change during a closed meeting, according to Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill.

This declaration of independence was nothing new for Castle, a moderate in a conservative-dominated caucus. He uses his safe seat at home to make his own way -- and keeps his seat safe at home by making his own way. A former two-term governor first elected to statewide office in 1980, Castle routinely polls 70 percent of the vote, although he backslid to 69 percent this time.

"Politics in America," a nonpartisan almanac by Congressional Quarterly, describes Castle as the go-to guy for reporters looking for insight whenever the moderates "are planning a maverick stand."

For Castle, the rule change was a time for another of those maverick stands. He issued a press release putting himself on the record.

"Changing this rule sends the wrong signal to the American people. Members of Congress are not above the law. When the Republican Party adopted this rule in the wake of scandals in 1993 involving high-ranking Democrats, we did so because we wanted to clean up Washington," Castle's release said. "The original rule was written for good reason, and it should stand."

Maybe there is something about those powerful Texas lawmakers that just rubs Delaware wrong. When Carper was in the House and the Democrats had the majority, he had his share of confrontations with Speaker Jim Wright, a Texan like DeLay.

There was one time, for example, when Carper and Wright disagreed about a bill. After Carper's version was approved by a subcommittee, Wright went to work and got it redone his way.

Carper did not go quietly. "I'll let today's vote and the broken arms speak for themselves," he said.