It is 2:30 p.m. in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington and a group of 50 retired United Auto Workers from Iowa already are 15 minutes late for a meeting with their state's senior senator. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) is on the Senate floor softly fulminating against yet another agreement broken by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), this time concerning a South Carolina judicial appointment the American Bar Association likes but Leahy does not. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is eager to be on the floor to support Thurmond, but no one at the guard station, where visitors already stand 20 deep, can tell him anything about the missing Iowans. "I gotta go," he quietly tells staffers anxiously looking around. "Tell them I waited and that I'll be back, and they can have me for as long as they like." And, with a wave, he's gone.
God, country and his fellow Iowans always come first for Grassley. But time these days is a precious commodity for the man many call both the conscience of the U.S. Senate and the federal government's most tenacious watchdog. The ramrod straight Grassley is a Senate original. Though he is a one-time poster child of the Moral Majority demonized by partisan Democrats, he consistently reaches across the aisle to advance important legislation. A hawk on both constitutional liberties and budgetary prudence, the 69-year-old native of tiny New Hartford was a "compassionate conservative" before compassionate was cool. In some ways he is the Senate's Will Rogers in reverse--it is hard to meet a man (or woman) who doesn't like Grassley. Don't let his countrified politeness and down-home appearance fool you; this man's as quick as any two of his Armani-suited colleagues already posing for Statuary Hall.
"I've been in Washington for 33 years and I don't think I have ever underestimated a politician as much as I underestimated Chuck Grassley" CNN Capital Gang's liberal panelist, Al Hunt, admitted earlier this year. "Bob Novak and I went to dinner with him about 20 years ago, and both our wives thought we misbehaved badly. Neither one of us thought that he was ... a terribly impressive new senator. And boy was I wrong because he is one of the most dogged, honest members of the Senate. I disagree with him a lot, but he's a heck of a public servant."
The end of the 107th Congress will mark the finish of a Senate session that began with Republicans in the majority and in control but, due to the defection of Grassley's good friend, erstwhile Republican Jim Jeffords of Vermont, the Democrats were able to shoehorn themselves into the driver's seat. For Grassley, who started the session as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, fate's fickle touch deprived him of the chance to push much of his own, and President George W. Bush's, agenda. Still, a big tax cut and international trade-promotion authority weren't bad consolation prizes.
Grassley's accomplishments, however, extend far beyond his tenure on the Finance Committee, with its jurisdiction over taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and trade, and even go beyond issues of agriculture and the elderly that are dear to his constituents. Few can match Grassley's record on issues ranging from defense fraud and tax reform to controlling government spending and congressional accountability. In the 104th Congress his Congressional Accountability Act was the first piece of legislation to be enacted. A pet project of Grassley's since the 1980s, it subjected Congress to the same labor and antidiscrimination laws that apply to all other Americans. Another Grassley initiative, the so-called "qui tam" amendments to the Lincoln-era False Claims Act, pushed together with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), gave whistle-blowers a stake in Justice Department civil-fraud cases, with government recoveries in "qui tam" suits totaling more than $5.2 billion since they were adopted in 1986. …