Kassebaum: a Wary Prarie Populist

TO understand where the Republican effort to reinvent government is headed, keep an eye on Nancy Kassebaum, the junior senator from Kansas.

As the Senate seizes more of the spotlight in coming months, Senator Kassebaum, a Republican, will be at or near the center of almost every controversial issue: welfare reform, affirmative action, the minimum wage. As chairwoman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, she will preside over the troubled nomination of Henry Foster for surgeon general.

Kassebaum believes strongly in the need to revamp the way government attends to the needs of the country, but is skeptical of catch phrases and simple solutions. She is a deficit hawk, but is wary of her party's promises to eliminate federal agencies or balance the budget by the year 2002.

If she has her way, the blanket approach to deconstructing the New Deal will give way to a methodical renewal of the role of federal government.

''I really don't know that we're going to reinvent government quite as much as we talk about it,'' she said in an interview. ''If [we] lay out a budget that will be balanced in seven years, the people will be astounded.... I care more about fiscal responsibility.''

Serving in her third term, Kassebaum has built a reputation as a thoughtful and independent legislator on both foreign and domestic policy. Her supporters call her the greatest prairie populist since Harry Truman. Her critics are hard to find.

On a recent cold, overcast day Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas was engaging in a sidewalk debate with some college Democrats at the University of Kansas when a man tapped her aide on the shoulder.

''I just want you to know she's the only Republican I could ever vote for,'' he said.

A few hours later, at the conclusion of a youth employment dinner in Topeka, Kan., a woman introduces herself to the senator and says, ''I don't vote for you because you are a Republican; I vote for you because of who you are.''

''Nancy is likely more popular than Bob Dole in Kansas,'' says Pete McGill, a former Speaker of the state's House of Representatives. ''You can get into a good argument over Bob, but not Nancy.''

Though a relative political newcomer when she decided to run for the Senate in 1978, Kassebaum drew upon a political asset that no challenger could parry: her maiden name. Her father, Alf Landon, was a popular governor of Kansas from 1932 to 1936 and the Republican opponent to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Presidents Nixon and Kennedy sought his advise during their terms of office.

It is from her father that Kassebaum received her political instincts, including a willingness to go against her party.

''I would call her an independent partisan,'' says Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. ''Over the years, there have been issues where she defines herself as a swing vote. The procedure is always the same: She doesn't declare herself, but listens to all sides.''

That approach will be vital to Henry Foster, the obstetrician whose nomination for surgeon general first provoked the ire of anti-abortion groups, then faced questions of integrity when the administration hesitated to reveal the number of abortions the nominee had performed during his career.

Most Republicans predict the nomination will fall apart in Kassebaum's committee. While Kassebaum blames the administration for bungling the abortion record, she predicts a tie-vote in committee, meaning that she would vote in favor of the nomination so that it could go to a floor vote. But Senate Majority Leader Dole could hold up that vote indefinitely.

Abortion ''shouldn't be the litmus test of this nomination,'' she says, regretfully.

Kassebaum is most cautious about current efforts to balance the budget. A veteran of the Reagan years, she knows the perils of offering tax cuts without sufficient spending reductions. And while House Republicans have promised to pay for their $189 billion package of tax cuts, Kassebaum is skeptical.

She doubts that in the end Congress will make the kind of deep cuts to such programs as farm subsidies, Medicare or Medicaid that would be needed to offset both the tax cuts and balance the budget in seven years. And she is worried that turning other programs into block grants, as House Republicans have done in their welfare and crime bills, won't reduce spending.

''A block grant is just money still going through Washington, and eventually it will come right back to us and will say, 'We'll need more money, and then we'll need more regulations on it,''' she says.

''We just don't do the oversight or spend the time to really figure out how to make government work better.''

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