Sens. Torricelli And Lautenberg Feuding Again Lautenberg Reportedly Suggested That His Fellow Democrat Was Indirectly Promoting Gov. Whitman.

Posted: March 04, 1999

WASHINGTON — Once again, it's open warfare between Sens. Robert G. Torricelli and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey.

Congressional sources say the two clashed bitterly during a Senate Democratic caucus on Friday when Torricelli spoke of Democrats' chances for recapturing the Senate - and Lautenberg suggested that Torricelli had been indirectly promoting a potential Senate campaign by Gov. Whitman, a Republican.

As the two lawmakers hurled accusations at each other, their Democratic colleagues, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, looked on, apparently stunned by the exchange.

Last year, New Jersey's senators patched up a feud that resulted in their not speaking for several months. But the truce apparently is over.

The conflict began when Lautenberg, who announced Feb. 17 that he would not seek reelection in 2000, took offense that Torricelli failed to mention the open New Jersey seat in his discussion of the coming elections. Lautenberg cited published remarks in which Torricelli had spoken of having a closer working relationship with Whitman than with Lautenberg.

Such published remarks, Lautenberg said later, could only help Whitman if she decided to run for the Senate seat. He said that was particularly so since Torricelli is heading up nationwide Democratic efforts to recapture the Senate.

As the two senators walked out of the meeting Friday, one participant who declined to be identified by name said Torricelli used a profanity in addressing Lautenberg.

After the meeting, Torricelli spokesman Jamie Fox said last night, Torricelli ``did go up to Sen. Lautenberg and in no uncertain terms told him of his displeasure'' over what Fox described as Lautenberg's ``attempt to embarrass him in front of his Democratic colleagues.''

Fox said, ``It has been unfortunate that over the last two years, our office has had a professional working relationship with the governor's office, and a less than adequate relationship with the senator.''

Lautenberg described his own comments at the meeting this way:

``I said that it doesn't help to have the chairman of the Senate Democratic [political action committee] talking about his friendly relationship with Gov. Whitman. . . . It was a poor tactic if we wanted to elect a Democrat to that seat.''

Torricelli was unavailable for comment, but congressional sources said he disputed Lautenberg's allegations to caucus members that he was promoting Whitman.

``I guess there was a truce but not a cease-fire,'' said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who has long followed the careers of the two senators. ``I think there is a fundamental clash of personalities that can't be patched over with first aid.''

The senators began to clash not long after Torricelli joined the Senate in January 1997. Lautenberg, who had long chafed at the media attention lavished on Bill Bradley, then the state's senior senator, had been hoping to step into the limelight.

But Torricelli soon gained national attention as he publicly agonized over whether to vote for a constitutional amendment that would have required a balanced federal budget.

Torricelli also was named head of the Senate Democrats' PAC, an unusual promotion for a freshman senator.

Soon, the two lawmakers were not speaking to each other. Lautenberg's staffers accused Torricelli of hogging the limelight, while Torricelli allies reportedly accused Lautenberg of trying to block Torricelli from being named to the campaign committee post.

As a result of the feud, the two refused to be named in the same news releases. They declined to appear together at news conferences.

Last May, the two seemed to patch up their dispute by strolling together through the annual Legislative Correspondents Dinner, a gathering in New Jersey attended by the state's political establishment, the press and many lobbyists, in an effort to show that they had overcome their differences.

But the conflict apparently has continued.

The two have disagreed about Lautenberg's contention that as senior senator, only he has the right to recommend to the White House a replacement for the U.S. attorney in Newark when that position becomes open. Torricelli argued that he ought to have some say.

The dispute Friday occurred with some of the Senate's top Democrats in attendance, including Daschle. A spokeswoman for Daschle said yesterday that the South Dakota senator had mediated earlier disputes between the two men, and would consider stepping in again if asked.

Baker, the political scientist, said Lautenberg and Torricelli were unlikely to get along over the long run because their similar political views often force them to compete for the same audience.

``Basically what you have is two fannies competing for one seat,'' Baker said. ``It doesn't necessarily mean that New Jersey loses out because its two senators are at odds. What happens, however, is that everything becomes very difficult. As economists might say, the transaction costs go up.''

* Inquirer staff writer Thomas Turcol contributed to this article.

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