A Senator's Conscience

THE angry talk about stripping Sen. Mark Hatfield of his powerful appropriations chairmanship for being the lone Republican holdout against the balanced-budget amendment is likely to remain talk.

Senators prize their freedom of action, and to punish one member for exercising his prerogatives would hem in everyone.

Many of the people calling for sanctions against the Oregonian have in the past asserted their own legislative independence - maybe on the 1990 budget agreement, when a number of President Bush's fellow Republicans left the reservation, or maybe on the Gulf war vote.

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Senator Hatfield has scorned ``party discipline'' more frequently than most, but that just makes him one of the more notable keepers of an honored tradition.

While some Republicans were berating Hatfield's ``arrogance'' in spiking the amendment, others were offering slightly veiled praise for a colleague who voted according to ``conscience'' and ``principle.''

The ``principle'' Hatfield positioned himself on was the sanctity of the Constitution.

He said that inserting into the Constitution a balanced-budget mandate would ``trivialize'' that document, opening the door for others who want to similarly enshrine their pet issues.

We came out on a different side of the issue from the Oregon senator too, but his reasoning, and his refusal to budge from it, deserves respect.

Will voters in Hatfield's own state, who have returned him to the Senate every six years since 1966, agree?

To date, he hasn't announced that he will run again in 1996 -- but the flak from Oregon GOP sources is reportedly thick.

Some may lament that one man's steely independence could thwart a party's will and, momentarily at least, derail the Republicans' Contract With America.

But a number of senators take care to point out that the Contract is the House's agenda, not the Senate's.

The upper house of Congress was designed for more stately deliberation and has evolved to be a place where the judgment of individuals, not just the vox populi, could hold sway.

Senator Hatfield's vote last week was the latest manifestation of that original plan.

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