Suspense, relief mark final hours of wrangling BUDGET WATCH

August 07, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Even the elevator operator kept her finger on the "open" button so she could hear what Sen. Bob Kerrey, standing outside the Senate chambers surrounded by a crush of reporters yesterday, had to say.

At the 11th hour, the Nebraska Democrat was the mystery man, the guy who held all the cards, the senator whose vote could have unhinged President Clinton's economic plan and wrecked a lot of Democrats' August vacations. Or not.

As Congress trudged through its final day before the sacred August recess -- a gray, dreary end to a long and torturous road for lawmakers who'd wrangled for months with the president's budget -- all eyes and ears were cocked toward Mr. Kerrey. Finally, about an hour before the Senate's scheduled vote, he revealed he would support the president.

In the House, there was a morning-after mix of exhaustion and relief, some hard feelings, some anxieties about the way the razor-close budget vote turned out Thursday night. Stacks of empty pizza boxes, testimony to the long night, sat outside office doors as members finished up business and looked forward to escaping Washington.

"School's out for summer!" sang Rep. Albert Wynn, a freshman Democrat from Prince George's County. "Everybody wants to go home. People are tired, asking for a caffeine fix, irritable. Just a general aaaaarrgh."

In fact, House members were so anxious to get out that they didn't even wait around to make sure last night's vote in the Senate allowed the vacations to begin.

"If the Senate doesn't vote for the bill, this will not be a happy place," said Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado.

Newly engaged New York Republican Susan Molinari wandered out of the House chambers to show off her 2-carat-plus diamond to reporters who'd requested a viewing.

"I feel like I'm 12 years old," she bubbled. "My mother's been calling all morning."

Less ebullient was Pennsylvania Democrat Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who hadn't been to sleep since casting her surprising, last-minute "yes" vote Thursday night, and had network TV crews, a "Larry King" gig and scores of phone calls from angry Republicans in her conservative district to contend with.

"She's the gutsiest person in both chambers," said her press secretary, Jake Tapper. "If she doesn't get re-elected, she can say to her son Andrew, who's 11 and will vote for the first time in the year 2000, 'I put my job on the line for you and your generation.' "

Also with much explaining to do was Minnesota Democrat Timothy J. Penny, who shocked his colleagues yesterday morning by announcing his resignation.

"We've been off on such a partisan jag, it was just more of the same," he said later in the day. "I figured, if you don't leave pretty soon, you'll never ever get out of here."

Playing hard-to-get

But all the while, as tourists filled the Senate visitors' galleries to capacity, as 7-foot-6-inch basketball player Manute Bol turned heads as he roamed the halls to talk to lawmakers about starvation in his native Sudan, as Senators made their speeches on the floor, nearly everyone kept an eye pinned on Senator Kerrey.

The former presidential candidate seemed to wallow in the attention as if it were a sunny oasis in yesterday's downpour, indulging in a game of "on the one hand/on the other hand" for close to a half-hour as reporters mobbed him in the Senate hallway.

"If I decide this is a step toward progress, I vote 'yes,' " he said. "But maybe I decide it's a step toward progress to kill the bill, and then I vote 'no.' You're rolling the dice either way."

He was asked what a 'no' vote would do to his political career.

"Help it or hurt it," he responded.

Wouldn't a vote against the budget completely undermine President Clinton's ability to govern?

"Perhaps."

Mr. Kerrey was more forthcoming about how he'd been passing the days, explaining that on the advice of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he went to the movies on Thursday.

"I went to see 'What's Love Got To Do With It' and my answer is, 'Not much,' " the bachelor senator said.

Yesterday, instead of a movie, he paid a visit to Mr. Penny, whom colleagues were calling a victim of the budget war.

"We've had our first casualty," said Ms. Schroeder. "This has taken its toll. You never know how people internalize things. But it has been tumultuous. And there's more tumultuousness to come, I do believe."

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