Clinton flies to Chicago to rescue Rostenkowski

March 01, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Sun Staff Correspondent The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

CHICAGO -- President Clinton, with beleaguered Rep. Dan Rostenkowski in tow, talked crime, health care, education -- and some very thinly veiled politics -- yesterday in a political rescue mission for the powerful House Ways and Means Committee chairman whose support Mr. Clinton needs on Capitol Hill.

The president told his audience at Wright Junior College that "if it hadn't been for the leadership of the chairman," his budget-reduction package, approved last year by a single vote in the House, "would not have happened, and this economy today would not be on the right path it's on if we had not done it. That is a fact."

In an allusion to the Justice Department investigation of allegations that Mr. Rostenkowski has misused federal funds, Mr. Clinton said:

"It is not up to me to know or to make judgments about all the things that are of concern to the people of Chicago, the people of this neighborhood."

As for Mr. Rostenkowski's role in winning the budget fight, Mr. Clinton said, "I know that for a fact."

Mr. Clinton also credited Mr. Rostenkowski with a critical role in congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada and set him up as a model for other members of Congress to emulate in his support for health care reform.

The president specifically noted that his legislative goals of health care and welfare reform "have to come through the Ways and Means Committee" and will need Mr. Rostenkowski's leadership.

That was further than the president had been expected to go on a visit for which he has been criticized in light of Mr. Rostenkowski's legal problems, and for involving himself in the contested March 15 Democratic primary.

State Sen. John Cullerton, former Alderman Dick Simpson and two minor candidates are challenging Mr. Rostenkowski, an the 18-term incumbent.

Earlier, in a round-table discussion and in a talk to students at Wright Junior College, Mr. Clinton steered clear of the politics that brought him to Chicago.

Mr. Rostenkowski sat largely mute as the president wrapped his political purpose in an issues discussion.

At one point during the discussion, at Mr. Clinton's invitation, Mr. Rostenkowski did speak up, to denounce violence on television as a contributor to the shootings about which several victims testified.

Then, in an unwitting bit of irony, Mr. Rostenkowski told Mr. Clinton: "I applaud you because you're not afraid to take on the tough ones. And this is a tough one." He was referring to the issue of gun control.

But the remark was applicable to the president's willingness to take heat for appearing to try to bail out a fellow Democrat under investigation by his own Justice Department.

After the round table, when reporters asked Mr. Clinton, "Are you endorsing the congressman?" the president ignored the question and continued shaking hands with discussion participants.

Although Mr. Clinton didn't utter a specific endorsement, his praise put him squarely in Mr. Rostenkowski's corner.

The Chicago lawmaker recently paid $82,095 to the House stationery store, acknowledging that some of the items he bought with office funds actually were "for personal use."

At one point, Mr. Rostenkowski invoked his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to avoid testifying before a federal grand jury. U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder recently informed the House leadership that the investigation of Mr. Rostenkowski was now "in its final stages and will be concluded inthe near future." Even so, sources close to the case do not believe that the grand jury will return an indictment before the primary. If Mr. Rostenkowski is indicted while still a member of Congress, House Democratic Caucus rules would require that he step down as chairman pending trial of the charges.

Mr. Rostenkowski's two principal primary foes were critical of Mr. Clinton's visit.

Senator Cullerton, considered the front-runner among the opponents, said the president was welcome but was making a political mistake in coming because, in talking of gun control, he was highlighting one of Mr. Cullerton's chief legislative achievements and one in which Mr. Rostenkowski had taken no national leadership.

Mr. Simpson asserted that Mr. Clinton was "dangerously close to interfering with the federal grand jury investigation."

In "campaigning" with Mr. Rostenkowski, Mr. Simpson said, the president was "sending a message to the federal prosecutors and members of the grand jury that he hopes the congressman won't be indicted, convicted and removed from office."

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