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Rep. Lazio: conservative, but not always party line

Rep. Rick Lazio has managed to walk a tightrope in his seven years-plus in Congress.

He has maintained a conservative voting record with just enough moderate deviations to satisfy his middle-of-the-road district. In doing that, he has avoided angering the House's hard-line Republican leadership, of which he is a part.

Consider: Lazio voted for two of the four impeachment counts against President Clinton in 1998, favored the Republican leadership's budget and its managed care bill, but bucked fellow Republicans to support overhauling campaign finance laws and opposed their move to prohibit affirmative action in higher education admissions.

As a freshman in 1995, he supported the "Contract With America" and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and voted for Republican budget bills that led to the budget confrontation with Clinton and the twin government shutdowns.

But the Long Island Republican votes about half the time with supporters of abortion rights. He says he favors the right of women to have abortions and would like that right codified into federal law. He supports family planning and has voted to require federal health insurance programs to cover the cost of contraception.

But Lazio, a Roman Catholic, has repeatedly opposed federal funding for abortion and has voted to ban a certain late-term abortion procedure, known as "partial birth abortion."

Lazio also was instrumental in House passage earlier this month of a bill to provide federal funding to treat poor women for breast and cervical cancer. An earlier initiative only paid for cancer screening.

He supported a five-day waiting period to buy a gun and has been endorsed for re-election by two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

Said Lazio last week: "There would be no surprises for New Yorkers on what kind of senator I'd be, they just have to look at my House record, unlike the first lady, where you'd have to guess."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., Lazio's counterpart on the Housing subcommittee and someone who has worked well with him on legislation, says Lazio will vote with the Democrats only sometimes.

"Like a lot of moderate Republicans, he will give us votes when it has no impact on the outcome," Frank said. "I call them ice-in-the-winter guys. They will give you ice in the winter but rarely in the summer."

Lazio's melding of the conservative and the moderate was most apparent last March when he shepherded a bill to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour through the House and helped attach it to a package of tax breaks for business designed in part to ameliorate the effects of the wage increase.

The double-barreled approach allowed Republicans who favor tax breaks to also support the wage increase, a popular issue with constituents in an election year. Many Democrats also supported the bill, unwilling to turn down a wage increase even in the face of tax breaks they said were unnecessary and would favor the rich.

House and Senate versions of the wage bill have yet to be reconciled, and Clinton has threatened to veto the measure if the final version contains the tax breaks. Still, House passage allowed members to go on the record.

In many ways, Lazio, a deputy House majority whip, has underplayed his differences with the House leadership.

He has regularly attended party leadership meetings and backed Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, for re-election in the face of some who wanted to oust Armey.

Lazio's loyalty was rewarded with a seat on the prestigious Commerce Committee without having to give up his post on the Banking Committee, where he is chairman of the housing subcommittee.

The subcommittee chairmanship has allowed Lazio to make a substantial legislative mark, most recently with passage of a $6.9-billion bill aimed at making it easier for municipal workers to buy homes in the communities where they work, a measure that won praise from Democrats as well as Republicans.