House pauses for its ailing Lou Gehrig

March 02, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Rep. William H. Natcher is the Lou Gehrig of Congress -- and there's no Cal Ripken in sight. The congressman's iron-man streak of 18,397 straight House votes began in 1953 and has never been equaled.

But the 84-year-old Kentucky Democrat was granted a favor by his colleagues yesterday that Mr. Ripken will never get: Play was suspended because Mr. Natcher was too ill to take the field.

In a gesture so extraordinary that Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington could not recall anything like it happening before, the House granted Mr. Natcher's request to postpone yesterday's scheduled votes so that the hospitalized congressman could undergo medical treatment for what he called an "intestinal problem."

"This is a human institution that has to pay attention to human needs within the institution, and that's what we're trying to do today," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House majority leader, in announcing the decision to postpone formal action on a $12.7 billion school aid measure.

House leaders insisted that they weren't so concerned about preserving Mr. Natcher's string of recorded votes as they were about preserving Mr. Natcher.

The powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who is being treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital for an intestinal blockage, is every bit as obsessed about his streak as Mr. Ripken, the Orioles' shortstop, and just as much a slave to it.

Back in 1979, Mr. Natcher was forced to skip President Jimmy Carter's visit to his central Kentucky district in order to preserve his attendance record.

Mr. Natcher told Mr. Foley yesterday morning that he was quite prepared to check out of the hospital, if need be, to keep his record intact.

"We felt that it was important that he get that treatment quickly so that he can get back on his feet quickly," Mr. Gephardt said.

Mr. Natcher's long career has been distinguished by a reputation for integrity and iron-willed abhorence for government waste.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who serves on Mr. Natcher's Appropriations subcommittee, recalls how the Kentucky congressman once stared down the formidable Sen. Robert C. Byrd when the West Virginia Democrat was trying to slip money for a "Byrd" scholarship program into a school aid bill.

Mr. Natcher is also well-known in Congress for his flinty independence.

A throwback to an earlier political age, he accepts no campaign contributions, pays all his re-election expenses (usually less than $10,000) out of his own pocket and maintains only a shoestring staff with no press aides.

But the congressman knows he'll be best remembered for earning a place in the record books that may never be matched -- not missing a roll-call vote or a quorum call in more than four decades.

It is the political equivalent of Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games, the record Mr. Ripken hopes to surpass in June 1995.

Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the House Republican leader, was called into an emergency meeting of the leadership to discuss the Natcher situation yesterday morning. He agreed that the ailing congressman's request should be granted.

"We know how much it means to him and his welfare," Mr. Michel said, calling Mr. Natcher, a "prince of the House."

For all his mental toughness and the goodwill of his colleagues, however, Mr. Natcher is apparently being betrayed by his body.

Before yesterday, he had not admitted to any ailment beyond "exhaustion and weight loss," although his health has been failing since last summer.

He has been hospitalized three times in the past month, and he showed up to vote last week in a wheelchair.

Hearings before his subcommittee have been postponed.

Would-be successors are feverishly campaigning for Mr. Natcher's chairmanship, despite his repeated declarations that he has no intention of resigning the post, one of the two or three most powerful in the House.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Natcher said he plans to return to Capitol Hill today. If he doesn't, his string will probably run out.

"Obviously there is a limit to the number of days that we can delay action in the House," Speaker Foley said, indicating that one day was the limit.

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