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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Specter's principled contrarianism fits in the tradition of lawmakers Senate historian Richard Baker describes as the conscience of the institution, men and women who "stand up and say, 'Hold on a minute.'" In addition to conducting hearings on Bush's no-warrant wiretapping program, Specter, 76, has repeatedly challenged FBI chief Robert Mueller on what Specter sees as shortcomings in the agency's performance; he chided the Justice Department for not participating in hearings on protecting reporters' sources and sent the White House a blistering list of questions he would have asked Harriet Miers had she not withdrawn her nomination as a Supreme Court Justice.

Specter can also be constructive. With Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, he turned what could have been colossal battles over the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito into disciplined and respectful hearings. He has hammered out enormously complex deals in committee on asbestos compensation and immigration reform. And as chairman of a powerful appropriations subcommittee, he was largely responsible for doubling spending on the National Institutes of Health and for increasing education spending 146% over 11 years. All of which he's managed while surviving a brain tumor, open-heart surgery and, in the past year, the chemotherapy treatment for his Hodgkin's disease. Says his former chief of staff David Urban: "You can find a lot of people who don't like Arlen Specter, but you can't find anyone who doesn't respect him."

BEST: JOHN MCCAIN

The Mainstreamer

Sometimes the power of a law depends on the lawmaker. Last May the Senate unanimously passed a Democratic amendment banning the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody. No one paid any attention. Then in October Republican John McCain introduced his antitorture amendment, using identical language, and the issue made headlines in newspapers across the country. The White House jumped to attention, dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to try to talk McCain down. He stood firm, and the bill passed unanimously in December.

It wasn't just that McCain, 69, had been tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain has that rare ability to put an issue on the U.S. agenda that wouldn't naturally be there. "It's a question of moral authority," says former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman of his former colleague. McCain has earned that moral authority over the years by being patient and making the big play. Many of the problems McCain tackles are entrenched and unexciting: they challenge the rules in Washington and the cynicism of voters at home. Over the past decade, McCain forced through a reform that made the money coming in from rich interest groups and directed at political advertisements more transparent. He has spent his entire Senate career exposing wasteful pork-barrel projects. And in the past year, he took his backwater committee, Indian Affairs, and used it to launch an investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose admission in federal court that he conspired to bribe public officials produced a series of efforts to ban certain kinds of influence peddling.

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