Conservatives in Congress are clearly in the driver's seat. They won a decisive victory in the House of Representatives last week for the penny-pinching Reagan budget.
The Senate's powerful conservative Republican majority promises to pass the spending cuts and it is eyeing a spate of social issues, ranging from a ban on school busing (now on the Senate floor) to the so-called "Family Protection Act" aimed at defending the historical role of familes and women.
But Senate rules being what they are, a single determined senator can stop -- or at least delay -- those proposals. And Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, probably the most liberal Republican in the Senate, has appointed himself to that role.He has launched a counterattack on the social initiatives of the right.
For two weeks before the July 4 break, he almost single-handedly held off a proposed antibusing amendment that had seemed certain to slide easily through the Senate. Proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chief spokesman for the Republican right, and J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, the measure would forbid the US Justice Department's involvement in busing for school desegragation. It would be the most drastic antibusing action ever taken by Congress and would seek to undo court-ordered desegregation plans already in effect.
A similar, less extreme amendment passed last year.
This time, Senator Weicker was waiting for it. He launched a filibuster and, for up to 7 1/2 hours a day for four days, held the Senate floor and lectured his colleagues on the Constitution and civil rights.
It was a classic role reversal: a Yankee lawmaker staging a filibuster over civil rights, just as segregationist senators had years before while fighting on the other side.
The amendment is not aimed at busing Weicker maintained, but is "anti-civil rights" and "anti-Constitution." Working at first alone and later with allies from both parties, he has kept the Senate from voting on the proposal, which would be attached to a Justice Department appropriations bill.
Whether, the maverick Republican from Connecticut can win or not, he vows that at least his opponents will know they've had a fight. This week, Weicker signed up fresh recruits when six Democratic and five Republican senators joined him in signing a letter opposing the busing ban.
Weicker is bracing for a long battle in which busing will only be the first skirmish. "I expect this debate [to go on] in some form for the next one and a half years," he said in a recent interview, settling had 6-foot 6-inch frame into a black leather chair in his office.
After the busing issue, he expects similar fights over prayer in the schools (which he maintains is clearly forbidden in the Constitution), the "Family Protection Act, and abortion. In each case, he said, "I'll be in the middle of those scraps."
Conservatives are "trying to end-run the courts and the Constitution" by proposing "riders" like the antibusing amendment to spending bills, he charged. He can accept defeat on budget and policy issues, he said, but draws the line at "constitutional" matters, such as desegregation.
"This isn't [voting] up or dow on a matter of public policy," he said. "This is up or down on a matter of the Constitution."
Isn't he setting himself up as a target for the New right?
"Yes," he said. "I don't have any concern about it. I think I understand the people of my state."
Weicker won editorial support for his filibuster from two newspaper (the Hartford Courant and the Meriden Record) in Connecticut, a state where all school busing is voluntary. But conservatives are talking boldly of his political demise when he runs for his fourth term in 1982.
The Weicker offensive against the busing ban "proves that he has no idea about what the people of Connecticut want," said John (Terry) Dolan, head of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. To make sure Republican leaders in Weicker's state know what their senator is up to, Dolan has been sending them reports of his liberal views and actions.
Abortion foes are also displeaded with the Connecticut senator for his recent unsuccessful crusade against cutting off federal funds for abortions for poor women when rape or incest is involved.
Weicker claims to be undisturbed by the critics and expresses disdain for fellow liberals who, faced with the nation's conservative mood, try, he says, to camouflage themselves. The fact is that "we can't change our spots," said Weicker, adding that the great sin is not voting the wrong way, but "trying to fuzz the record."
The Weicker spots are still in place and the liberal record is clear.
"I understand the consequences of what I'm doing," he said. "I am held accountable." Lawmakers must not think they own their jobs, he added. "If I don't represent Connecticut, [the voters are] entitled to kick me out, and I want to be out."
Although he suggested that "maybe my views are out of date," Weicker is pinning his hopes on a more moderate message from the voters in '82 than the one they sent in November. And if they don't? He grimaced at the thought of four years plugging the dike against a flood of conservative proposals.