Obituary: Warren B. Rudman / Budget-conscious senator

May 18, 1930 -- Nov. 19, 2012

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Warren B. Rudman, the moderate and sometimes combative Republican senator from New Hampshire who waged a frustrating fight to balance the federal budget and who helped lead a federal panel that warned of a terrorist strike against the United States seven months before the 9/11 attacks, died on Monday night in Washington. He was 82.

The cause was complications of lymphoma, according to his former communications director, Bob Stevenson.

Mr. Rudman, a Korean War veteran and former amateur boxer, prided himself on his blunt-speaking adherence to centrist principles and his belief in bipartisan compromise as the underpinning of good government. He served two terms in the Senate, but decided out of exasperation not to seek re-election in 1992, saying that the federal government was "not functioning" and that it was impossible to get anything done in a Senate rife with posturing and partisanship.

Before he left office he extended his fight against the federal budget deficit by joining with former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, D-Mass., and the former commerce secretary Peter G. Peterson in founding the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group on fiscal issues.

And as a private citizen he later served as co-chairman of a federal commission on national security with former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado. In a report released on Feb. 15, 2001, seven months before planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, the panel warned that "attacks against American citizens on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties, are likely over the next quarter century."

Mr. Rudman was best known for two laws that sought to force the government to spend within its means: the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985 and the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1997. Those measures, sponsored with Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, threatened automatic spending cuts if Congress and the president did not meet benchmarks on the road to a balanced budget.

But while the laws helped hold down deficits, Republicans balked at raising taxes and Democrats resisted limits on entitlements, and the measures were amended and repealed before they could force huge spending cuts.

The failure of his efforts to control federal spending was one reason Mr. Rudman gave for retiring from the Senate.

"I wasn't sure the glory of being a senator meant much if we were bankrupting America," he wrote in a 1996 memoir, "Combat: Twelve Years in the U.S. Senate."

A signal moment in his Senate career came in 1987 when he served as vice chairman of the Senate contingent of the congressional investigation into the Iran-contra affair. He worked closely with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, the Democratic chairman, and joined in the majority report, opposed by House Republicans, which concluded that aides to President Ronald Reagan had knowingly violated the law by selling arms to Iran and using the money to aid the anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua.

In a confrontation with Lt. Col. Oliver North, the Marine officer who played a central role in the affair, Mr. Rudman told him that he, too, believed that the United States should aid the rebels, known as contras, but that the American people and Congress had decided otherwise and made it a matter of law.

"The American people have a right to be wrong," he told Mr. North. "And what Ronald Reagan thinks or what Oliver North thinks or what anybody else thinks matters not a whit. There comes a point when the views of the American people have to be heard."

For all his work on fiscal and national security issues, Mr. Rudman said he regarded his role in the selection of David H. Souter for the Supreme Court as his proudest achievement. Former Justice Souter had served as deputy when Mr. Rudman was attorney general of New Hampshire in the 1970s. In an interview for this obituary in 2010, Mr. Rudman called Former Justice Souter "an absolutely extraordinary member of the court" whose views, though he was part of the court's liberal minority on social issues, "will become majority opinions and will become the law of the land." Former Justice Souter retired in 2010 after 20 years on the high court.

Mr. Rudman also served as chairman and then vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. In 1991 the committee took action against the so-called Keating Five, senators who had questionable relationships with the savings-and-loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr. When one of the senators, Alan Cranston, D-Calif., defended himself by saying he had only done what others had done in aiding Keating, an angry Mr. Rudman took the floor.

"What I have heard as a statement I can only describe as arrogant, unrepentant and a smear on this institution," he said. "Everybody does not do it."

Mr. Rudman was a sharp critic of the religious right. In his memoir he wrote: "The Republican Party is making a terrible mistake if it appears to ally itself with the Christian right. There are some fine, sincere people in its ranks, but there are also enough anti-abortion zealots, would-be censors, homophobes, bigots and latter-day Elmer Gantrys to discredit any party that is unwise enough to embrace such a group."

The American Conservative Union rated his voting record as 67 percent conservative. His critics on the right were unhappy with his support for abortion rights; for the Legal Services Corp., which provides lawyers for the poor; and for countenancing tax increases as part of the solution to balancing the budget.

"I thought my beliefs were classically conservative," Mr. Rudman countered in his memoir. "On balance, they put me near the middle of the political spectrum, a little to the right of center."

Warren Bruce Rudman was born in Boston on May 18, 1930, the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Germany, Poland and Russia. As a child, he moved with his family to Nashua, N.H. There, he wrote in his memoir, "thanks to schoolyard encounters with anti-Semitism, I was handy with my fists."

After graduating from Syracuse University, where he boxed, he served as a company commander in the Korean War, winning a Bronze Star. In his memoir, Mr. Rudman described the impact of his time in the Army.

"As I wrote the book I saw an unexpected theme emerge: the importance of my Korean War experience and the bond I felt with other senators, such as Bob Dole, Dan Inouye and Bob Kerrey, who had also known combat. If you have that experience, not much is left in life that will intimidate you."

After the war, he took over as operations manager of his family's furniture company in Nashua while attending law school at night at Boston College. He was in private practice from 1960 to 1968, became counselor to the governor of New Hampshire in 1969, then attorney general from 1970 to 1976. After returning to private practice, he ran for the Senate in 1980 and narrowly defeated John A. Durkin, the Democratic incumbent. He easily won re-election in 1986, which was generally a bad year for Republicans.

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