Heroes in the House

August 26, 1994|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- EXCEPT FOR CHILD pornographers, church robbers and con men who prey on widows, no group is so scorned as Washington politicians.

Talk shows and polls revile them as self-serving, corrupt scoundrels.

More often than not, I've joined the boo-bird chorus.

But once in a blue moon, Washington pols forget their egos long enough to do something right.

Such a minor miracle happened in the U.S. House, when a Lost Battalion of Republicans, ignoring National Rifle Association threats and their conservative leaders, joined with Democrats to pass the crime bill.

And, not incidentally, save Bill Clinton from terminal humiliation.

They didn't look like heroes at 3 a.m. Sunday. Rumpled and unshaven and red-eyed, they were shabby as winos who had spent a night on a park bench.

Running in and out of Democratic leader Dick Gephardt's office, waving pieces of paper, shouting angrily, they tried to bang together a crime bill that would survive 218 votes. In the middle of the bedlam was White House chief Leon Panetta. Lurking by the door, the NRA lobbyists.

Some, even this congressional carper must admit, became heroes. Let's call the roll.

Start with an unknown freshman, Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. Although he was a popular two-term governor of Delaware, Mr. Castle sits in the back rows of the House. Rookies are advised to shut up, mind their elders. "Shakes you up in your first term when the president's on the phone," Mr. Castle said.

Through his low-keyed, common sense, Mr. Castle became the leader -- along with Reps. John Kasich, R-Ohio, and Susan

Molinari, R-N.Y. -- of a moderate Republican block in the all-night poker game. They haggled and bartered, shaving a couple billion from crime prevention programs ("pork" to the hard right).

"You'll make the president the 'Comeback Kid,' but the media will never give you credit," stormed Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif.

OK, let's give them credit. I'm not sure how to define a moderate Republican -- maybe someone without Jesse Helms' autographed photo on the wall. But 46 Republicans broke ranks to join Mr. Clinton and stare down the gun lobby.

Then there was Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, cigar-chomping curmudgeon who's been in Congress 40 years and hates to lose. Mr. Brooks took two haymakers. He's a hunter, ex-Marine and Texan -- automatic reasons to despise the ban on 19 assault-type weapons. Then Mr. Brooks' $10 million boondoggle for his alma mater, Lamar College, was stripped.

He stalked out of all-night negotiations in a cloud of enraged cigar smoke. But when it counted, Mr. Brooks, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, didn't sulk. He stood up for the crime bill. His late mentor, Sam Rayburn, would have been proud.

"I tried to kill it [the assault-gun ban] every way I knew," Mr. Brooks said. "I wasn't successful. Let's move on."

Add the name of Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., another House bull (39 years). Mr. Dingell has been an NRA powerhouse. The crime bill was an agonizing choice. In a surprising speech, Mr. Dingell called the gun ban "obnoxious" but he'd vote for a "smart, tough" crime bill.

Then Big John shocked the NRA lobby by resigning from its board.

What of Mr. Clinton's comeback? After all, he'd been labeled a wimpish president, ridiculed by last week's shocking defeat.

Well, give Mr. Clinton, too often the king of wafflers, points for hanging tough. Against advice that surrendering to the rifle lobby would guarantee a win, Mr. Clinton stuck with the assault-weapon ban. He hit the road, blistering the NRA -- attacks unheard of in Reagan/Bush years.

"It was the president vs. Charlton Heston," said a Clinton aide, alluding to the toothy actor's TV ads.

Significantly, Mr. Clinton reached out at the last moment for Republican help. He came to Washington arrogantly counting on a Democratic steamroller with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Suddenly, his desperation and slick minority footwork made Republicans into players.

"I hope this represents change," said Mr. Clinton, baggy-eyed and exhausted. "It's the way Washington is supposed to work."

Maybe. But Mr. Clinton's roller coaster hasn't seen its last dizzying swoop. Bipartisanship was on the rocks as the Senate wrangled over the crime bill. A gimmick by the anti-gun crowd, led by Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, could kill the crime bill.

Face it, some senators oppose the bill to mug Mr. Clinton. Others rage against "social welfare pork" -- crudely lambasted as "dance lessons and midnight basketball for robbers and rapists."

"Make no mistake," said Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, "this is about guns, guns, guns."

Senators look down upon their House brethren with the snobbishness of English butlers snubbing tradesmen. But they should emulate the crime-bill unselfishness of bleary, weary representatives.

Their suits are less ritzy, their chamber less ornate, their rhetoric less elitist. But in the clutch, some were heroes.

Sandy Grady is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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