Bartlett dilutes promise on cutting federal deficit 'Lead or Leave' pledge redefined

January 06, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Roscoe G. Bartlett Jr. won a congressiona seat as one of the many candidates whose distaste for business-as-usual in Washington led them to sign a "Lead or Leave" pledge, vowing to either chop the deficit in half in four years or leave office.

But one hour after he was sworn in yesterday, the Republican from Maryland's 6th District was backing away from that campaign pledge.

"I signed that with the caveat that I would do my utmost" to reduce the deficit, said the freshman congressman. "If it doesn't happen, it won't be my fault."

Pressed on whether he will leave if the deficit is not halved, Mr. Bartlett says he might let voters decide in "some kind of a referendum" whether he should run for re-election or leave office. The 66-year-old retired engineer and scientist from Frederick says he plans on staying in Congress six to 12 years.

Mr. Bartlett is the second oldest freshman in the House (Rep. Carrie Meek, a Florida Democrat, is five weeks older). Together with his new Democratic colleague, Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, the Maryland lawmaker is part of the largest congressional freshman class since 1948.

Also yesterday, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, was named assistant floor leader by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell. She is the first woman to become part of the Democratic leadership in the Senate. In the new post, Ms. Mikulski will assist the majority leader in shaping a legislative agenda, working for passage and participating in leadership meetings with the House.

The appointment was "an acknowledgment of . . . the growing influence of women in the Senate," said the Baltimore lawmaker. This year, an unprecedented four Democratic women were elected to the Senate to join Ms. Mikulski and GOP Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas.

Mr. Bartlett is one 12 new House members who signed the Lead or Leave pledge, a promise to reduce the deficit pushed by former Sens. Paul E. Tsongas and Warren Rudman. Pledge-takers also won four Senate seats.

While Mr. Bartlett was vague yesterday on whether the deficit will cut short his career, he was clear that federal spending should itself be cut.

Seated yesterday in his bare third-floor office across from the Capitol, he elaborated on his views about government. Western Maryland voters chose him in November over the more liberal positions of Democrat Tom Hattery, a state delegate who dispatched Rep. Beverly B. Byron in the March primary. As he spoke, a semi-circle of supporters, family members and local officials munched on cookies and cold cuts.

"We need to prioritize all the things government needs to do and would like to do," declared Mr. Bartlett, reclining in his high-backed leather chair. "We don't do things after the money runs out."

With a homespun comparison, he noted that most families would like to spend three months in Bermuda but couldn't afford it.

The federal government is "almost to the level of doing things like three months in Bermuda on a family vacation," he said, peppering his talk with references to a "bloated bureaucracy."

President-elect Bill Clinton's pledge to cut 100,000 federal workers is "a good start," he says, but the Republican congressman is uncertain how much further to go. He supports the politically sensitive "means tests" for entitlement programs, a move that would limit Social Security and Medicare benefits.

While he acknowledges that some senior citizens sharply disagree, "All we want is the discomfort to be fairly shared," he says.

Such a tight-fisted viewpoint might have some local officials wary of a shortage of federal largess. But Frederick County Commissioner David P. Gray, who munched on snacks and lauded Mr. Bartlett as "a man of real high integrity," seemed little concerned.

"Pork for pork's sake is real stupid," he says, referring to wasteful government projects. "I have confidence he'll fight for legitimate things." Mr. Gray expressed hope that more federal funds would flow for the Head Start preschool program in his county, for example.

But Mr. Bartlett said later he wasn't sure about spending more for Head Start, saying he would prefer that the same service be provided by volunteers and through tax breaks rather than by government.

Still, the new congressman seems selective about federal government cutbacks.

Starting out as the lowest ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, he says he favors "downsizing" the Pentagon -- but not before the economy gets stronger.

He favored the $50 billion cut in defense spending proposed by the Bush administration, but he isn't certain whether he'd go further. Sharp and quick cuts would send more soldiers and defense workers into the unemployment line.

"I would opt for the productive position," he says.

And he is uncertain about opposing such multi-billion projects as a space station, saying "glamorous, high-tech, cutting edge" projects can be worthwhile even in hard economic times.

"Our people need to feel good about something," he said. "Something they can look to . . . to keep up their morale."

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