Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
View Related Topics
March 20, 2000, Monday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 19; Column
1; National Desk
LENGTH: 1169 words
HEADLINE: A Senior Statesman Is Facing the Threat of
BYLINE: By ERIC SCHMITT
DATELINE: WILMINGTON, Del., March 13
On a tour of low-income housing here, Leon N.
Weiner, a prominent developer, turned to the senior senator from Delaware,
William V. Roth Jr., and raised an increasingly familiar question.
"People ask me, 'Is Senator Roth, at his age, ready to make another
six-year commitment?' " Mr. Weiner, who will turn 80 in May, said.
a year older than you are, Senator, and I wouldn't make it."
missing a beat, Mr. Roth, seeking a sixth six-year term this fall, shot back
with a smile to his still-active constituent: "Knowing you, Leon, that's a lot
As chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Mr.
Roth would be in a position to shepherd some of Capitol Hill's hottest
legislation this year, like a China trade bill, tax relief and changes in health
The longest serving politician in Delaware history, Mr. Roth
has made a career of getting things done by working with Democrats, like Senator
Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, the panel's ranking member.
But at 78
(Mr. Roth turns 79 in July) and facing a stiff re-election fight from Delaware's
popular outgoing Democratic governor, Thomas R. Carper, Mr. Roth has become
perhaps the Republicans' most vulnerable Senate candidate in campaign 2000.
Since last fall the polls have been showing Mr. Carper, 53, with a 10-point
In this state of 750,000 people, which takes pride in its moderate
traditions and civil campaigns, voters seemed conflicted over the choice between
Mr. Roth's experience and influence and the younger, more dynamic Mr. Carper.
"I'm torn," said Mr. Weiner, a Democrat. "Bill Roth is a sincere, decent
and honest guy. If he were a Democrat, I'd support . . . him. But what really
bothers me are some of his Republican colleagues, like Jesse Helms and Phil
Over a lunch of cream of crab soup and Caesar salad in Dover
while on a daylong swing through the state, Mr. Roth defended his decision to
"I think I can make a difference, both because of my
seniority and chairmanship," said Mr. Roth, a mild-mannered legislator who
revels in being low-key. "This is the most exciting, challenging time to serve.
I can have a real, direct impact on those key issues."
He said he was
fit, despite a spill he took recently at a White House meeting on China trade.
"My foot fell asleep."
Because the Republican party has term limits for
Senate chairmanships, he would have to give up the Finance Committee in 2002,
undercutting his argument for seniority. Mr. Roth, a former chairman of the less
prestigious Governmental Affairs Committee, could head another panel.
Democrats have already been counting Mr. Roth's seat as theirs. "Clout
is the political argument of last resort," said James Jordan, political director
of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Yet, from the banking
hub of Wilmington to the farmlands of southern Delaware, the issues facing the
Finance Committee resounded with residents here, underscoring Mr. Roth's pivotal
When the Senate returns on Monday from a weeklong recess, it will
take up a popular bill that Mr. Roth supports that would allow most Social
Security recipients, for the first time, to earn as much money as they wanted
without sacrificing any retirement benefits.
After an awards ceremony at
Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, Del., Peggy Paul, a 64-year-old technician, came
up to the senator to urge the measure's passage. "I would have to cut back and I
want to continue working," said Ms. Paul, who would lose nearly $8,000 in Social
Security benefits under the current law when she turned 65.
committee has also planned to begin hearings soon on legislation to grant China
permanent normal trading relations, a vital step for Beijing's entry into the
World Trade Organization. Proponents were hoping a strong vote by the panel
would build momentum for accord in the House, where the prospects were dimmer.
Under the agreement, lower Chinese tariffs would benefit Delaware
farmers as well as the banks and international chemical companies in the state's
"A lot of people don't understand it doesn't affect
our markets," Mr. Roth said. "They already have access to our markets. What it
does is give us access to their markets. If we don't get access, then we're
"It would be a major fiasco if we do not act on
this," he said. "A vote on normal trading relations may not only be the most
important vote of the year, but of the decade."
Answering critics of
permanent trade status, Mr. Roth said opening Chinese markets would also enhance
democratic values there. "The more they trade, the more they tend to be guided
by rule of law," Mr. Roth said. "It's a gamble, but it's the best gamble we have
Mr. Roth, perhaps best known for the Kemp-Roth tax cut of
1981 and the tax-free savings accounts that bear his name, has been backing an
array of tax cuts, even though their public appeal seems to be waning in the
The senator has backed Gov. George W. Bush's proposed
tax cut of $483 billion over five years starting in 2002. But House Republicans
were able to muster backing only for a smaller package, and prospects in the
Senate were unclear.
"Benefits are going to those who are paying the
taxes, but a lot of our proposals have been intended to help the working
people," Mr. Roth said.
Which was why Republicans this year were slicing
up last year's big tax package into more targeted proposals. The Finance
Committee would soon be considering a Republican-sponsored bill that would
reduce taxes for married couples.
Cutting taxes has not resonated with
all Delaware voters.
Ron Marcozzi, a 61-year-old delicatessen owner,
said he liked Mr. Roth's three decades of experience, but he wanted to hear from
"the other guy" -- Mr. Carper -- because he was frustrated that Republican tax
been skewed toward the wealthy.
"Whether it's Democrats or
Republicans, a little guy like me pays a lot of taxes," said Mr. Marcozzi, a
Republican. "It seems the poor can't pay and the very rich don't do their part."
Mr. Roth has also played an important role in forging coalitions on
health care legislation. In June 1997 he presided over late-night back-room
negotiations that produced a bipartisan agreement to create a new health
insurance program for children in low-income families. It was part of a
comprehensive budget legislation that the Finance Committee approved by a vote
of 20 to 0.
And it has not gone unnoticed here that Mr. Roth supported
an increase last year in Medicare's minimum payments for
pap tests, to $14.60 from $7.15 a test, insuring greater access
to health-screening for female patients.
"If Senator Roth was not the
Finance Committee chairman, I don't think we'd have gotten the
pap-smear issue resolved," said Dr. V. Raman Sukumar, chief of
pathology at Beebe Medical Center, and a registered independent. "Just this one
issue will make me think of voting for him."
GRAPHIC: Photo: The
Delaware senator, William V. Roth Jr., right, with Ron Marcozzi, a delicatessen
owner, in Wilmington. (Keith Meyers/The New York Times)
LOAD-DATE: March 20, 2000