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When the Louisiana congressional delegation publicly demanded a staggering $250 billion from the government to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, the move completely backfired. It angered G.O.P. conservatives, who spent the next two months pushing for cuts in the budget and ignoring Louisiana and Mississippi. But then Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran got tough on behalf of his state. In a closed-door meeting last December, several Republican Senators were talking about how to quickly pass a key bill that would provide money for the Defense Department so lawmakers could head home for the holidays. Cochran simply announced that "this bill won't pass" unless it includes money for the Gulf Coast.
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which decides how Congress doles out money, Cochran wields considerable power on Capitol Hill, particularly on budget issues. But along with that post, Cochran has gained the trust of the Administration and Capitol Hill for his quiet, courtly manner that is evident whether he is playing the piano in his office or using his experience and mastery of the issues to persuade his colleagues privately rather than make demands on them in public. "I don't call lots of news conferences," Cochran says. "I just don't see that as a necessary part of my responsibilities."
On Katrina, Cochran, along with other Gulf Coast lawmakers, created a detailed list of the region's essential needs that totaled about $35 billion. He then had dozens of meetings with other lawmakers, emphasizing how badly the region needed the money but never publicly blasting Congress for moving too slowly. In the end, he got $29 billion out of his colleagues, almost double the money that Bush and congressional leaders had initially pledged.
Cochran, first elected in 1978, is often overshadowed in Washington by the junior Senator from his state, the ambitious and often controversial Trent Lott. But Cochran, 68, has carved several niches for himself, including becoming one of the few Senators well versed in farm policy. "He doesn't get a whole lot of play in terms of coverage," says a senior G.O.P. Senator, "but he is effectively stubborn doing what needs to be done."