Rolly: Sen. Bennett playing to a narrow audience
Sen. Bob Bennett should be thankful that fellow Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch did not sponsor a flag-burning amendment this year.
Otherwise, Bennett, Utah's junior senator, probably would have had to betray his conscience and vote for the proposal that many have labeled an attempt to stifle one of the very freedoms the flag symbolizes.
Indeed, Bennett has consistently opposed Hatch's efforts to change the Constitution to allow states to criminalize that form of public expression, once calling it a solution looking for a problem.
But this year is different. Bennett, a respected Washington insider known for working to find bipartisan compromises on sticky issues, apparently has concluded he must run to the right of the most strident conservative Republicans in Utah if he wants to keep his seat in 2010.
Those close to Bennett say he recognized the potential for a right-wing shiv to the kidney ever since six-term incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon was defeated in the GOP primary by upstart Jason Chaffetz last year. Chaffetz beat Cannon by playing to the party's right wing.
So Bennett has assumed the guise of "Senater No," attacking practically everything the new administration has tried to do. He even placed holds on nominees for key posts in the Department of Interior after new Secretary Ken Salazar shelved a number of disputed oil and gas leases in Utah. A federal judge had halted the federal auction of those leases when the Bureau of Land Management's method of approving them was challenged.
Bennett's conservative credentials in Utah have been tarnished by his longtime role as a skilled bipartisan negotiator. He angered some of the more conservative elements of his party by securing millions of dollars in federal funding for Salt Lake City's light-rail system in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
During congressional debate on those Utah earmarks, Bennett consistently butted heads with Arizona Sen. John McCain, and succeeded in derailing McCain's attempt to scuttle the mass-transit funding.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Bennett has steered many more earmarks Utah's way and has stood up against conservative Republicans who have made abolition of federal earmarks a pillar of their platform.
He has been a key figure in securing agreements to move toxic uranium tailings away from the banks of the Colorado River in Moab, and he worked with Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, on a compromise with Democrats that guaranteed passage of their controversial Washington County lands bill.
Bennett is a co-sponsor, with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Washington, of a health-care reform bill that supporters see as a way to make affordable coverage available to more Americans while maintaining a private-sector system.
And he was one of the negotiators in the Senate that steered President Bush's $700 billion bailout of financial institutions through Congress. That effort raised the ire of Utah's conservative elite, who suddenly regained their animus toward deficit spending after eight years of slumber during the Bush years.
Now, for the first time in his Senate career, Bennett will face a formidable challenge from another conservative Republican -- most likely Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. So Bennett has pulled back the hand he had often extended across the Senate aisle.
Bennett's obfuscating might help swing the votes of delegates to the state GOP convention his way a year from now. But should his right-wing strategy gain him re-election, he may find that the bipartisan respect he has earned in three terms in the Senate has turned tepid.