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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No one would accuse Carl Levin of looking like Hollywood's version of a U.S. Senator. He's pudgy, balding and occasionally rumpled, and he constantly wears his glasses at the very tip of his nose. Still, the Michigan Democrat has gained respect from both parties for his attention to detail and deep knowledge of policy, especially in his role as a vigilant monitor of businesses and federal agencies. In 2002 a subcommittee he led hauled in Enron's board of directors for questioning about the company's shady accounting practices; in hearings a year later, he was one of the chief challengers of large accounting firms that had created illegal tax shelters. Congress passed laws in the wake of both scandals in an effort to prevent the abuses from happening again.

Levin, 71 and first elected in 1978, says he considers congressional hearings a critical part of his job, spending as much as 20 hours prepping for each one so an evasive witness won't outwit him. The former civil rights lawyer is known for forcing embarrassing admissions from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other Bush Administration officials through his precise questioning. "You've got to be very blunt and truly listen so you know when the b.s. is flying," Levin says.

Although admired by many Republicans for his diligence, Levin rarely sides with them. He opposed the Iraq war, and as the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, he has become one of his party's leading voices in criticizing President Bush's conduct of the invasion, arguing that the Administration didn't have enough troops in the early stages and, more recently, hasn't focused enough on training Iraqis. But his carefully researched, thoughtful remarks carry great weight with his colleagues. "Nobody in the Democratic Caucus says anything on national-security issues without talking to Carl Levin," says a top Democratic Senate staff member.

BEST: JON KYL

The Operator

Many junior Senators waste away in the shadow cast by a giant senior colleague. But in just two terms, Arizona's No. 2, Jon Kyl, 63, has blossomed in the shade of John McCain. As head of the Republican Policy Committee, the ultraconservative Kyl is in charge of shaping the Republican agenda in the Senate on everything from abortion and judicial appointments to national security and tax cuts. He has succeeded by mastering a tactic that is crucial in a body in which any one member can bring the place to a halt as a ploy or out of pique: subterfuge.

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