Landrieu’s reelection bid made difficult by Vitter

Before Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) faces Louisiana voters in November, she has to square off against the junior senator of her state’s delegation, Republican David Vitter.

Vitter is not only working in Louisiana to buoy the candidacy of her GOP opponent, John Kennedy. He has also taken steps on Capitol Hill that have isolated Landrieu politically and denied her election-year victories on legislation.

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At times the issues dividing them are typical for members from opposing parties, such as different views on judicial nominations. But in the most extreme case, Landrieu and Vitter have clashed over helping Hurricane Katrina victims.

Top Republican strategists insist they are not coordinating with Vitter to put Landrieu – the most vulnerable Senate Democrat facing reelection – in tough positions. But his efforts have helped paint a picture that Landrieu is a Democrat not willing to reach across party lines, unable to pull off legislative victories and out of step with mainstream voters in red-state Louisiana.

Landrieu gets the sense that her home-state rival is trying to make her political life difficult.

“Every minute that he spends in that way is one less minute that he’s working for the benefit of the state,” Landrieu said. “He’s developed, I think, an unfortunate reputation as an attack dog. I just have to live with it and deal with it.”

Vitter declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokesman, Joel DiGrado, said in a statement that the two senators have worked together on “numerous important pieces of legislation” for Louisiana.

“Beltway insiders might be looking to create election-year drama over their ideological differences – such as Sen. Vitter’s support for getting rid of the death tax – but those are also the people who make a living on keeping the bitter partisanship in politics,” DiGrado said.

Competing for media attention and trying to establish individual expertise on big-ticket issues to tout back home are common among senators from the same state. But taking direct shots at one another is unusual, especially when it comes to local issues, where home-state senators often cast aside their partisan differences.

The Louisiana delegation appears to have taken the infighting to a new level, even though the two senators have long-standing ties. Landrieu attended the same kindergarten as Vitter’s older brother, Jeffrey, and the two senators’ mothers used to attend the same church.

On the Hill, the rivalry is intense and their relationship is rocky, according to Louisiana and Washington political insiders. Evidence of that is in their legislative maneuvering.

 For instance, last year Vitter surprised Landrieu by opposing a bill to reconstruct subsidized housing that existed before the 2005 hurricanes in New Orleans.

The bill had generated support from the House Republicans in the Louisiana delegation, and appeared to be moving to passage until Vitter announced his objection, which has prevented the measure from advancing to the floor.

Supporters of the bill say Vitter is trying to prevent Landrieu from scoring an election-year victory. But Vitter has rejected that suggestion in the past, saying the bill would set bad policy by once again creating housing projects filled with crime and poverty.

Democratic aides said they have moved to resolve Vitter’s objections, but he has not accepted their proposed changes.

Former Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana said the sniping is unusual for a delegation that has long worked together across party lines.

“The last thing people in Louisiana want to see are people in the same delegation working against each other,” Breaux said.

On other political issues, Vitter has helped stall some of Landrieu’s efforts. Last month during the budget debate, Landrieu tried to push through an amendment to reduce the estate tax, which Republicans deride as the “death” tax because it taxes the transfer of property after a person dies.

Landrieu’s measure was identical to language previously offered by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). But she added language to pay for the lost revenue by tightening offshore tax loopholes, which President Bush has previously supported. Kyl said the Landrieu amendment was disingenuous, suggesting it would eventually lead to a tax increase.

Republican leaders and Vitter lobbied their Republican colleagues to oppose the measure, according to aides from both parties, ensuring that the amendment failed by a whopping 23-77 vote.

Despite supporting the Kyl amendment earlier in the day, Landrieu later voted against it to protest what she said was the GOP’s decision not to work out a middle ground.

Republicans say they are eager to exploit the change in her votes – and the strong rejection of her amendment – as a sign of weakness on taxes.

Vitter has also pounded Landrieu over the stalled nomination of David Dugas for the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Louisiana, chalking up Landrieu’s objections to the nominee as “pure partisanship” that the “American people are clearly fed up with.”

“I think it could cost her politically, and I think that’s the whole idea,” Jeff Crouere, a former executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party and now a political commentator in the state, said of Vitter’s efforts on the Hill. “I think unfortunately that the fact that they have not been able to work together has hurt the state.”

Crouere called the two senators “bitter enemies,” but said Landrieu has exerted far more influence sitting on the Appropriations Committee, while Vitter had been badly damaged by last year’s allegations of ties to a prostitution ring. The two still co-sponsor pet projects, almost $190 million last year, but Landrieu individually earmarked more than 10 times the amount Vitter did in 2007, according to the group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Landrieu is one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, but Republicans want to highlight some of her left leanings.

For instance, Vitter last year offered an amendment to prohibit federal funding to institutions affiliated with abortion centers, a measure that showcased Landrieu’s pro-choice positions.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is leading his conference’s push to expand Republican seats in the fall, denied that Vitter’s efforts are part of an organized strategy to defeat Landrieu.

“He does what he thinks is right up here,” Ensign said of Vitter. “If that happens to be different than . . . how [Landrieu] votes, she’s going to have to live with that and face the people of Louisiana.”

Even when the two agree on issues, they have sparred over who should take credit.

For instance, Landrieu, along with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), offered an immigration enforcement bill at almost the exact same time as an identical bill that Vitter introduced.

Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the two offered identical reconstruction bills: one with Vitter’s name as the lead sponsor, and the other with Landrieu’s name first.

Landrieu said “it’s not always easy” working with Vitter.