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Associated Press, Published March 21 2005

Coleman at odds with GOP

WASHINGTON - For two years, Democrats have criticized Republican Sen. Norm Coleman for voting too much in lockstep with his party and the Bush administration. But Coleman, a former Democrat, may have rediscovered his roots in recent weeks.

The Minnesota senator has sided with Democrats on a number of high-profile votes, and in some cases has even led the charge, as he tries to undo many of President Bush's proposed budget cuts.

On Thursday, for example, Coleman won passage of a budget amendment that would block Bush's proposed cuts in the Community Development Block Grant program, relying on the support of every Democrat in the chamber. The same day, he was one of seven Republicans to vote to block proposed Medicaid program cuts.

That came after Coleman voted with Democrats on a bill to increase the minimum wage and block drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He has also written letters to Senate budget leaders urging them to block Bush's proposed agriculture cuts, and to provide more funding for college loans than Bush is seeking.

Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said that the votes will play well back home.

"Anybody who runs against him will have a hard time painting him as a Bush clone," Schier said.

Schier said Coleman is probably acting out of a combination of motives. "There's political calculation, happenstance and serious conviction all mixed up in these things," he said.

In 2002, Coleman ran as a bridge-builder who would work across party lines, but he disappointed some centrists by what they considered his partisan voting record and comments in 2003 and 2004.

In an interview, Coleman said he had to be more of a team player last year, to help get President Bush re-elected.

"There's more flexibility with the captain of your team not up for re-election," he said. "There are times, last year in particular, when it's important to make sure that the team won every vote, to work with the majority. I'm still working with the majority, but I'm able to plot my own course."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., did not return phone messages left with his spokesman for this story.

White House spokesman Allen Abney called Coleman "a strong supporter of the president," citing the senator's votes this year for reform of class action and bankruptcy law. Abney said the White House was not concerned about Coleman's recent votes against the president.

Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, said they weren't a sign that the old Democrat in him was resurfacing.

"It's the former mayor in me," he said.

Schier, the political scientist, agreed.

"As a mayor, he had to cut deals and be practical in solving problems," he said. "Both of those explain why he's showing some independence on this."

"This is a guy," Schier added, "who did not spend his life on the right wing of the political spectrum, and therefore does not have that deeply-ingrained template."

David Strom, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said that Coleman owed Bush for helping with his 2002 Senate race.

"He's been pretty loyal the first two years," Strom said. But he said that no one should be surprised by Coleman's more independent track this year.

"He's not an ideological figure," Strom said. "He's very much a pragmatist. There are a lot of people who were mildly surprised that he wasn't this way from the start."