Curt Weldon: A Champion of Russia or Master of Spin?

Now that the Sept. 11 attacks have brought his worst fears to bear, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., insists that the United States must strictly monitor weapons proliferation by enemy states and terrorists, and refashion its relationship with former foe Russia from competitor to comrade.

"The bottom line is that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has largely been centered around areas of defense issues and they have typically been losers," the eight-term congressman and member of the House Armed Services Committee told Fox News. "I want to broaden that to areas that the Russian people can see — a bold agenda of America and Russia together."

The comments aren't new. Weldon has been pushing U.S.-Russian relations during his last 16 years in office, first working doggedly to ensure that Americans were safe against missile proliferation abroad, even when it meant tangling with former administrations and the Central Intelligence Agency, and then promoting closer ties to the former Soviet republic.

Weldon, a former teacher who won his last two re-elections handily and is favored to win once more, said President Bush should strike broader security agreements with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin while the iron is hot and Putin is willing to help fight the war on terror. The two meet in May for a summit on non-proliferation and arms reduction.

"[Putin] has been very supportive of us in our war on terrorism," he said, pointing to Russia's help allowing America to move troops into its "sphere of influence" in the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Georgia to fight the war on terror.

"I am so happy we have someone like him on Capitol Hill," said Edward Lozansky, president of Russia House in Washington, D.C., which is hosting a Russian World Forum at the end of the month where Weldon will deliver a keynote speech. "I consider him a champion of U.S.-Russian relations."

Not everyone is happy with Weldon's work. In the 1990s, he was tireless in his attempt to expose the CIA for hiding the real dangers regarding rogue states like Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and China building missiles. He's been a strong supporter of missile defense, opposed by many Democrats.

He criticized the Clinton administration's sale of commercial satellites to China in the mid-1990s and said it botched any real progress with Russia because it did not reach out enough to the Duma — Russia's parliament — and turned a blind eye to the rampant corruption regarding private loans from the United States and International Monetary Fund.

But Weldon hasn't been shy to part ways with his own party. Reflecting the blue-collar interests of his district, Weldon has consistently broken ranks with his GOP colleagues and voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement and fast-track approval for the president.

His record may make it harder for Democratic opponent Peter Lennon and Green Party candidate Bob Smith to make their case in the Philadelphia suburb that has trended Republican for a very long time and is home of the War Board, one of the few remaining Republican Party machines in the country. Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District is 88 percent white and predominantly Catholic, with above-average incomes and deep Philly roots.

Lennon, who garnered 35 percent of the vote against Weldon in the 2000 race, said there is more to Weldon's record than meets the eye.

"It's clear to me that what he says and what he does are two different things," he said.

Lennon said Weldon is a happy recipient of defense contractors' campaign funds, which didn't prevent the loss of 1,500 employees at the Boeing plant last summer in Weldon's Delaware County district. Weldon has been a strident supporter of the Marine Corps plane, the V-22 Osprey, which is built by Boeing helicopter division in Weldon’s district and has been under fire after several well-publicized crashes.

"He's on the take, he's getting their money," Lennon said, adding that Weldon gets a failing grade on domestic issues such as education, taxes, the environment, and prescription drugs for seniors.

"After over 15 years in Congress, he has gotten good at spinning," he said. "You've to got to look at what he’s doing and ignore what he says and the average voter doesn't do that."

But Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., said that despite their positions on either side of the aisle, he respects Weldon's tenaciousness on the House Armed Services Committee and considers him a strong candidate for an easy 2002 election.

"I've known him a long time — he's very hardworking and easy to work with," said Brady, whose district borders Weldon's. "As you can tell, I'm a fan."