Rostenkowski watches his power ebb

May 26, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- On what many believed could be Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's last day as chairman of his beloved House Ways and Means Committee, the scene was like a death watch for a wounded king.

Grim-faced aides moved about the committee room quietly. The likely successor, Rep. Sam M. Gibbons, D-Fla., hovered nearby. No one wantedto talk about what was on everyone's mind.

Every so often, Mr. Rostenkowski would glance over at the bank of more than a dozen photographers he knew were there only to capture his misery over a possible federal indictment on ethics charges that might force him from the chairmanship and Congress. The color would drain from his ruddy, expressive face.

"It was awful, awful," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore Democrat who serves on the committee. "Somebody said it must have been like Jackie Kennedy's apartment when people came to visit the day before she died."

Clearly, there was that same sense yesterday of losing nTC

someonelarger than life. This big, gruff, intimidating man, who inspires both strong loyalty and respect bordering on fear, defines what it means to be a power in Congress.

Of the dozen House and Senate leaders who met with President Clinton yesterday to assess the status of his health reform legislation, Mr. Rostenkowski had been expected to be Mr. Clinton's most valuable ally.

The congressman's skill at brokering deals -- often using threats and rewards in pursuit of high-sounding public policy such as tax reform -- is unmatched among his colleagues.

President Clinton values Mr. Rostenkowski's skills so highly that he took the politically risky step of campaigning for the Ways and Means Committee chairman when it appeared Mr. Rostenkowski might lose his primary race for re-election in March.

But sometime within a few days, and almost certainly before Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess, Mr. Rostenkowski and his lawyers are expected to reach a decision that will take him out of the action.

Mr. Rostenkowski may accept a plea bargain that would force him to give up his chairmanship, probably leave Congress and possibly serve a prison sentence. Or he will be indicted and be forced out of his chairmanship, at least temporarily, by House rules.

In any case, Mr. Rostenkowski's colleagues have already started preparing to carry on without him. "Nobody in Congress is indispensable," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, observed last week.

Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear yesterday that the White House is adjusting to Mr. Rostenkowski's imminent departure. "It would be an obstacle Congress would have to figure out how to overcome," Mrs. Clinton told reporters. "It would be a great loss to Congress, but health care reform and the need for it is bigger than any one person in this country."

Mr. Rostenkowski, 66, is among the last of his kind. The product of Chicago Democratic machine politics, he came to Washington 36 years ago as the agent of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and rose to become the confidant of presidents.

After more than 20 years of aiming for the House speakership, Mr. Rostenkowski in 1981 took over the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. It is probably Congress' most powerful panel and is a prime target of big-spending lobbyists.

Aide de camp

Mr. Rostenkowski has a huge staff that includes a sort of aide de camp who drives his car and gets his coffee.

The chairman is not a particularly high-living man, but he has enjoyed the fringe benefits of his job: rich meals and resort vacations at the expense of lobbyists.

It may have been Mr. Rostenkowski's adherence to the old way of politics that led him into trouble.

Robert Rota, the former House postmaster, pleaded guilty last year to a scheme in which he funneled tens of thousands of dollars in cash to members of Congress. He implicated Mr. Rostenkowski in the scheme.

The Chicago Democrat steadfastly denied any wrongdoing as the federal inquiry expanded to examine his activities during his entire service in Congress.

According to published reports, federal prosecutors are ready to seek an indictment that would include charges that Mr. Rostenkowski put ghost employees on his Chicago payroll and used taxpayer money to buy gifts at the House office supply store.

Returned $82,095

Earlier this year, Mr. Rostenkowski reimbursed the government $82,095 for the supply store items. But he insists there was no intentional wrongdoing. Among the issues said to be keeping Mr. Rostenkowski awake at night is a lengthy and expensive trial to prove his innocence.

But friends say they suspect that the U.S. attorney for Washington, Eric Holder Jr., a Clinton appointee, may not be able to offer Mr. Rostenkowski an attractive enough plea bargain to forestall such a trial.

Any sign of favoritism would look as if President Clinton was trying to give Mr. Rostenkowski a break.

In any case, Mr. Gibbons, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, has appeared eager to take over. Colleagues worry that the 74-year-old congressman isn't up to the task, but the seniority system is so strong he is not likely to be challenged. Other congressional leaders working behind the scenes are expected to pick up the slack on health care.

Even with Mr. Rostenkowski's political life -- and perhaps more -- hanging in the balance, the chairman has continued to negotiate with business leaders over the past couple of weeks in hopes of winning support for a version of president's bill.

But Mr. Rostenkowski was unable to complete his work this week as he had hoped, because he hasn't yet gotten cost estimates on various proposals from the Congressional Budget Office.

"I can't get the numbers," he growled yesterday in a frustration that bespoke his larger situation. "They won't give me the numbers."

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