Dem senators attack their ailing colleague

Patrick Howley Political Reporter

An anonymous Democratic senator attacked Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye in an interview with the Hill Friday, claiming that the 88-year old Inouye, who is currently hospitalized with respiratory complications, is an ineffective committee leader and has stayed in the Senate for “too long.

“I love Inouye. He’s just been sort of not there in terms of running the committee,” said one of the 16 Democrats on the Senate Committee on Appropriations. “We get shunted to the side, we don’t get our bills out, we’re not forceful about it. I guess that argues for term limits. Sometimes people stay just too long.”

Another anonymous Democratic senator added to the pile-on Friday, telling the Hill that his colleague’s criticism of Inouye “has some truth to it.”

The anonymous Democratic Senator made his or her comments Friday as Inouye rested at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Inouye has been hospitalized since fainting in his office on December 6. He is currently in stable condition, but his release date has not been announced.

“It is just cowardly that a colleague would make such outrageous suggestions about Senator Inouye’s tenure, and yet refuse to give their name as the source. It is truly a new low around here and deeply disappointing,” Democratic West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller complained in a statement Friday, after the anonymous quotes had been published.

Though controversial, the anonymous statements suggest that Washington Democrats are in agreement with many Democrats in Hawaii, who have increasingly cited Inouye’s age and half-century tenure as reasons the 88-year old senator should step aside and hand power over to a new generation.

Inouye, who joined the U.S. Senate in 1963, revealed one of the secrets to his longevity in an August interview with the Maui News in which he discussed his quiet maneuverings on Capitol Hill to stop efforts to ban earmarks.

“We got (dozens of) buses for Maui with earmarks,” Inouye said. “No matter who the president is, do you think they’d care about that? Well, I can’t tell you enough how many people it’s helped here.”

“However, critics call it ‘pork barrel’ spending to garner votes or create legacies,” the Maui News reported.

Inouye’s political decline started to become visible during a 2010 Hawaii special congressional election, when a split occurred “between Inouye’s supporters and those who want the (Democratic) party to be more independent of Inouye’s controlling grip,” according to the Hawaii Reporter. The intra-party squabble led to a Republican winning a three-way race against two Democrats, including one backed by Inouye.

Ed Case, the Democrat in the race who was not backed by Inouye, has since vigorously pushed for the end of Inouye’s reign.

“There was a time when Senator Inouye — or more accurately, the people around Senator Inouye — on his behalf, or at least statedly on his behalf, would be able to exert a much greater level of what happened inside of the Democratic Party,” Case said in a local television interview in 2011.

“That arose because Senator Inouye was funding the Democratic Party and therefore had the power of the purse…he would facilitate contributions to the Democratic Party.  The Democratic Party really became overly dependent on his funding for its survival,” Case added.

Inouye attracted criticism again this year for endorsing Hawaii Rep. Mazie Hirono for a U.S. Senate seat before the Democratic primary had been held, causing some Democrats to “bristle” at Inouye’s persistent control of state politics.

Many Hawaii Democrats defiantly backed grassroots candidate Case, who mounted a strong primary challenge to Hirono and, in effect, to the Hawaii political establishment presided over by Inouye.

“The Democratic primary can be seen as a referendum on Senator Inouye,” Hawaii Reporter publisher Malia Zimmerman said in July.

Case received 40 percent of the primary vote.

Inouye and Hirono celebrated Hirono’s primary victory together August 11 after Hirono received only 57 percent of the vote in what was expected to be a virtually uncontested primary.

Nevertheless, despite opposition from Democrats both at home and in Washington, Inouye reportedly intends to seek a tenth term in the Senate in 2016, at age 92.

Follow Patrick on Twitter