America's 10 Best Senators

Those who make a difference in the U.S. Senate — and five Senators who are falling short

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The skills that allow McCain to put unorthodox issues at center stage--independence, single-mindedness--don't always translate well to other pursuits. They helped McCain lose the 2000 G.O.P. presidential primary by scaring the party establishment and its base. So as the front runner in the 2008 campaign, McCain is taking the opposite tack, endorsing Bush tax cuts that he once opposed as fiscally unsound; embracing religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell, whom he once denounced; and endorsing the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Opinion writers have been perplexed at the preprimary turnaround, but the two-year walk-up to 2008 won't consist of just courting the party's die-hards. McCain is scheduled to assume the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee next January, a target-rich environment for a waste and fraud hunter. He is already stumping against gerrymandering, which he says is undemocratic. "It's harder to keep your job in the politburo in Havana than in the House of Representatives," McCain says.

And if he wins in 2008? Among the first items on his agenda in 2009, McCain says, is winning the battle that George W. Bush just lost--fixing Social Security and other underfunded entitlements. Crucial to that effort, he says, is getting Congress to clean house. "If you've got $47 billion in earmarks and 6,140 pork-barrel projects on the highway bill, how can you expect the American people to make tough decisions about entitlement programs?" he asks. No matter what happens in '08, says scholar Norman Ornstein, McCain will be remembered as "one of the few people who can have great impact in the Senate."

BEST: DICK DURBIN

The Debater

Even though the Senate is occasionally called the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, actual debate on the Senate floor rarely happens: members just read prepared speeches written by aides and then return to their offices. Then there's Dick Durbin. On issues from immigration reform to judicial nominees, the Illinois Democrat frequently engages in public back-and-forth with his Senate colleagues in hearings and before votes--and rarely uses notes to do it. "I can't do it any other way," says Durbin of his off-the-cuff style. "That's me." And while the debates don't often change the votes of other members, Durbin's tough questioning of his colleagues and his willingness to defend his proposals clarify and distill complicated issues for the C-SPAN-viewing public. Occasionally, Durbin's arguments even carry the day, as when he won support on the Senate Judiciary Committee for a provision in an immigration bill that would protect church groups and others from prosecution if they aided illegal immigrants.

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