Washington — For a few hours this week, Terry Sanford, a freshman Democratic senator from North Carolina, was the most important man in the United States Congress. On Wednesday afternoon, Senator Sanford cast the critical, final vote sustaining President Reagan's veto of an $88 billion highway bill. He felt that the bill dealt North Carolina a bad hand, and he had told Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, and North Carolina Lt. Gov. Robert B. Jordan III (D) that he would vote to sustain the veto.
Sanford, a former governor of North Carolina and president of Duke University, was the lone Democrat in the Senate to break ranks and cast a vote to sustain the President's veto. In so doing, he became the tiebreaker in what had become a political arm-wrestling match between a President trying to reassert political authority and an independent-minded, Democratic-controlled Congress.
Senator Byrd immediately moved reconsideration, igniting a round of high-intensity politicking that lasted through the night.
Sanford was the object of intense lobbying by his Democratic colleagues. The arguments worked. Sanford gave a speech suggesting he had recanted. And yesterday, when the Senate voted again on the overrride issue, Sanford voted with the Democrats. The President lost, garnering only 33 of the 34 votes he needed to sustain his veto.
``I've made my point and, by the way, the President made his,'' Sanford said. He denied that his change of heart was the result of pressure from his colleagues. ``My concern now is the fate of the highway program. I'm thinking of the country now, not just North Carolina.''
Sanford's case neatly illustrates the dilemmas members of Congress face when they cast difficult, controversial votes. Lawmakers are often loathe to reverse themselves on an issue, partly out of fear that in future elections opponents will accuse them of flip-flopping. That fear can, at times, lead to some striking legislative contortions.
For example, the House Democratic leadership disposed of the idea of introducing a resolution to halt the release of the final $40 million installment of the $100 million aid package for the Nicaraguan contras because the House had approved that package only six months earlier. Some members who had voted for the aid package had begun, within a few months, to regret their decision. Still, they did not want to be seen as reneging on a vote.
So the House passed, instead, a bill suspending further distribution of aid until the White House had accounted for the money the contras had so far received. ``You could call it a good government vote,'' explained one House Democratic aide. ``No one could accuse you of flip-flopping.''
Dramatic public reversals such as Sanford's are rare. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming calls it a case of ``freshman gridlock'' - when a new member struggles to balance the sometimes conflicting demands of local politics and party priorities.
``It happens to us all,'' says Senator Simpson.
Democratic and Republicans leaders alike depicted the vote as a test of party loyalty - a call for senators to vote with their leaders almost regardless of other pressures. ``All that could be heard in that clatter was loyalty, loyalty, loyalty,'' said Simpson of the din on the Senate floor Wednesday. ``What we have is a totally partisan issue.''