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A Champion of Moderation, R.I. Senator John Chafee Dies at 77

By Helen Dewar

Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., 77, a gentle but stubborn champion of moderation in an increasingly polarized Senate and one of Congress’ leading environmentalists, died Sunday of heart failure.

Chafee, a veteran of Guadalcanal in World War II who went on to more than 40 years in politics and government, died at 7 p.m. at Bethesda Naval Hospital after being admitted several hours earlier, according to aides. He had fallen ill at his McLean, Va., home.

Chafee announced in March he would not seek a fifth term in the Senate next year and never seemed to recover full strength after undergoing back surgery during the summer. But he maintained a full schedule and was honored recently for a variety of causes, including last Thursday night for his support of historical preservation.

President Clinton said Chafee “embodied the decent center which has carried American from triumph to triumph for over 200 years” and “proved that politics can be an honorable profession.”

The impact of Chafee’s death will probably be felt most immediately on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which he headed for the past five years, giving the panel an environment-friendly focus that was not always in tune with the majority of Senate Republicans.

Conservative Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.) would be in line to succeed Chafee but for the fact that he left the Republican Party a few months ago to pursue the presidency as an independent, leaving his claim to the chairmanship in serious doubt. Next in line is Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., another staunch conservative with a record that could hardly contrast more dramatically with Chafee’s.

During their careers in Congress, the League of Conservation Voters found that Chafee agreed with its position 70 percent of the time, compared with 7 percent for Inhofe and 36 percent for Smith. The choice of a successor rests with the largely conservative Republican members of the committee, subject to approval by all GOP senators.

Chafee’s seat as a senator is almost certain to be filled by a Republican, most likely by his son Lincoln, mayor of Warwick, the state’s second largest city.