Santorum shifts left for '06 run

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), one of the Senate’s foremost conservatives, has made several statements on tax and wage issues in recent days that suggest he is shifting more to the left. Santorum, who is up for reelection in 2006 and a possible presidential candidate in 2008, is one of the Democrats’ top targets in a state that was carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year. Some conservatives have grumbled about Santorum’s recent positions in blogs, conservative editorial pages, and internet sites, although many observers predict Santorum will be able to hold onto GOP base voters in his reelection effort.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), one of the Senate’s foremost conservatives, has made several statements on tax and wage issues in recent days that suggest he is shifting more to the left.

Santorum, who is up for reelection in 2006 and a possible presidential candidate in 2008, is one of the Democrats’ top targets in a state that was carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year. Some conservatives have grumbled about Santorum’s recent positions in blogs, conservative editorial pages, and internet sites, although many observers predict Santorum will be able to hold onto GOP base voters in his reelection effort.

Santorum has become the point-man for the GOP leadership on developing a proposal that would raise the minimum wage by $1.10 over two years, to $6.25 an hour.

The proposal — which would also include tax cuts intended to lessen the burden on small businesses — was conceived as an alternative to a more generous proposal raising the minimum wage by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy has been considering offering the proposal to a bankruptcy reform bill this week.

A Santorum spokeswoman said, “Senator Santorum is working on a Republican alternative that is more reasonable and imposes less of a burden on small businesses.”

Senate GOP aides say that Santorum’s proposal will be very similar to one developed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last year.

Santorum said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this weekend that he is willing to consider raising the $90,000 payroll tax cap on earnings in order to pay for private accounts for Social Security. Many conservatives consider lifting the cap to be an unacceptable tax increase, although Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has suggested it as part of a reform plan.

Other top Republicans, such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), immediately rejected the idea of lifting the $90,000 cap.

“The president has also said we shouldn’t have any kind of rate increase,” said Santorum, saying repeatedly that all options are on the table. “But I’m sitting down and negotiating with Democrats in the Senate, and what I’ve said is I can’t expect them to come to the table with everything on the table unless I come to the table with everything on the table.”

Santorum also dismissed so-called add-on accounts on top of Social Security, an idea that many Democrats, as well as Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) have endorsed.

Also on “Meet the Press,” Santorum criticized President Bush’s budget for proposed cuts in Amtrak, a favorite target of many conservatives that nevertheless is important to Pennsylvania’s economy.
“It’s not acceptable to me,” Santorum said of the cuts. “I think what the president has suggested is not going to pass, number one. Number two, I think what he has been putting forward is that Amtrak has to be more efficient.”
Santorum’s comments have drawn criticism from conservative quarters. An editorial in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said a wage hike would stifle new hiring in the economy. “That’s what wage floors do, senator. Do we really have to send you a copy of Henry Hazlitt’s ‘Economics in One Lesson?’

A contributor to a blog on the conservative group Club for Growth’s website, referring to Santo rum’s comments on Amtrak wrote, “Where conservative principles end, pork-barell politics begin.”

Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the failed challenger to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) who is now president of the Club for Growth, said he opposed any tax increases or wage hikes, although he predicated that Santorum would win reelection.

“I think it’s a mistake to raise the minimum wage,” he said. “It would just guarantee that we price lower-income workers out of a job.” He continued, “We absolutely don’t think we should raise taxes as part of Social Security reform. We don’t need to do it.”

Santorum yesterday announced an anti-poverty agenda that stressed charitable giving and welfare reform reauthorization.

Santorum faces a difficult balancing act in his reelection campaign. As the third-ranking GOP leader in the Senate, Santorum has helped lead the campaign to overcome Democratic opposition to Bush’s judicial nominees. But Santorum also was described by other GOP senators as working to help Specter secure the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee when he came under fire for comments about the president’s judicial nominees.  He also endorsed Specter over Toomey, a move that irked some conservatives.

Asked whether Santorum was tacking left, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said, “The question is, in what ocean is he sailing.” Dorgan continued, “It’d be pretty hard to see that if he did [move left], because he’s so far on the right side of the spectrum.”

Added Phil Singer of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, “His version of running to the left is tilting his body slightly one degree in that direction. He sees that he’s got a tough election campaign coming up, and he’s starting to say, ‘Hmm, maybe I should start representing the people I represent.’”
Singer also noted that Santorum voted to prevent a vote on the minimum wage in 2003. 

The web site PoliticsPA reported Wednesday that state Treasurer Bob Casey, considered the strongest Democratic challenger, has decided to run against Santorum, although the report could not be confirmed. Former treasurer Barbara Hafer also may run.

A Quinnipiac poll last month had Casey beating Santorum head-to-head by 46-41 percent. Santorum dismissed the poll when asked about it by The Hill, saying Casey’s negative approval ratings would be far higher by the time Santorum finished running a campaign against him.