WASHINGTON - Ron Wyden, George Bush's new best friend?
Not likely. The Oregon Democrat is known as one of the more liberal members of the U.S. Senate and is a frequent critic of the Republican president.
But some longtime supporters are complaining that Wyden cast them aside this fall as his votes helped Bush win hard-fought victories on two bills crucial to the president's agenda - and his re-election chances in 2004: the landmark Medicare reform and so-called healthy forests legislation.
Wyden was one of only 11 Democrats to support the Medicare bill and was a key backer of the forestry bill, which most Democrats opposed.
Democrats call the Medicare bill - which for the first time will partially cover prescription costs for seniors - inadequate. The forestry bill, which will ease environmental restrictions on logging and other projects in national forests to reduce the danger of wildfire, is a giveaway to the timber industry, they say.
Wyden called the Medicare bill flawed, but said it will benefit more than 100,000 Oregon seniors with high medical bills or low incomes who will see their prescription costs drastically reduced. The forestry bill will reduce the risk of wildfire while preserving public participation in forest decisions and protecting old-growth tress, Wyden said.
"The bottom line for me is always, does a piece of legislation make a genuine positive difference?" Wyden told The Associated Press in an interview. In both cases, he added, the answer is yes.
"My decision was to make a start," Wyden said of the Medicare bill, "and I'll be back in January with some concrete ideas on how to improve it."
Still, some who oppose Bush as well as the two bills are disappointed in Wyden, Oregon's senior Democrat and arguably its most popular politician of either party.
Thanks in part to Wyden, Bush "has got two wins now on traditional Democratic issues," said Jay Ward of ONRC Action, the political arm of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a Portland-based environmental group.
Senior activist Michael Arken said he feels "betrayed" by Wyden's Medicare vote, adding that his group's support for Wyden in next year's election - normally a foregone conclusion - is in jeopardy.
Wyden understands the hurt feelings, but dismisses any suggestion - even in jest - that he is a friend of the president.
"I'm always interested in trying to find common ground (with Bush and other Republicans) when principle warrants it," he said. "But on those areas where I didn't think the administration was right, I was out front - speaking out, talking about why I didn't think it made sense."
He opposed Bush on the failed GOP energy bill and the Iraq war, Wyden notes, and helped shut down a planned "Terrorism Information Awareness" program, a Defense Department data-mining effort that he and other critics said could have infringed on the privacy of U.S. citizens.
A veteran politician who served 16 years in the House before his election to the Senate in 1996, Wyden knows Republicans will use his votes against Democrats.
"I don't think anybody is naive," he said, "but I'm not going to tell seniors who are choosing between eating and buying their medication that I wouldn't give them any help at all because of politics, or because the bill wasn't perfect."
But critics say Bush's victories on Medicare and healthy forests create a scenario in which he can come to Oregon next year to tout his moderate credentials. They say Bush, who lost Oregon by fewer than 7,000 votes in 2000, can boast that even the state's popular Democratic senator supported his proposals to reduce fires in national forests and add a prescription benefit for seniors.
"I know they'll use it as a political plus for themselves," Democrat Nellie Fox-Edwards said of Republicans. "That's why I'm so disappointed."
Fox-Edwards, a former lobbyist for the AFL-CIO and state president of the American Association of Retired Persons, was so disgusted by the national AARP's support for the Medicare bill that she resigned her membership. She is more forgiving of Wyden, an old friend and a former organizer for the Gray Panthers, a senior activist group.
"Ron Wyden has been a good friend of the working people and the seniors for years and years," the Beaverton resident said. "One thing I've learned in politics is you can't expect someone to agree with you 100 percent of the time."
Arken, president of the Oregon Alliance for Retired Americans, said he is having a hard time getting over his disappointment.
"I think most seniors feel betrayed," he said. "I think they are going to find there are things that are completely unacceptable in that bill."
Arken, whose 22,000-member group includes many union members, said the alliance has always supported Wyden, but is not sure what stance to take next year. No major Republican has emerged to challenge Wyden, but state GOP leaders promise he will have an opponent.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbits calls controversy over the Medicare vote media-driven hysteria.
"Despite all the gum-flapping, I don't see much evidence it will be a big issue next year," he said. "Yes there's some outrage and unhappiness, but there's also some people saying 'at least we got something through,' " by adding a prescription benefit to Medicare.
Hibbits, an independent, said most of the opposition to the Medicare bill comes from liberals unhappy with its limited benefits and conservatives upset about the huge expansion of an entitlement program.
"Any time you get the Democratic left and the Republican right united on something, it's probably not a bad thing," he said.