Saddened Democrats mark last day in office, last day of rule in the House

'THE END OF A LONG ERA'

November 30, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- It was the Republicans' turn to lead the Pledge of Allegiance as the House opened its one-day lame duck session yesterday. But Democratic Speaker Thomas S. Foley, after banging the opening gavel for the last time, requested that he be allowed to do the honors "with the kind indulgence of the Republican side, on this last day of the 103rd Congress."

It was much more than the last day for the House of Representatives. It was the last day of public service for scores of Democrats, including Mr. Foley, who've spent years -- decades -- in the marble and statue-studded hallways. And most significantly, the last day of Democratic rule, at least for the next two years, after a 40-year reign stretching back to the Eisenhower era.

"There's overwhelming sadness on the [House] floor," said Rep. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat. "And a lot of queasiness with people wondering, 'Is this the end of a long era?' "

For many, including a parade of departing Democrats who were allowed to preside over the House proceedings yesterday, it was. And amid the hugs and handshakes, the good wishes to winners and pats on the back to losers, House members gathered for, not only one final vote, but for farewells and inevitable assessments of the future -- and the past.

"My congressional career has come to a close," Mr. Foley, defeated this month after nearly three decades in the House, said in a brief but graceful farewell speech to colleagues last evening. "I leave this Congress with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude -- gratitude to many."

Mr. Foley said he regretted that the institution of Congress was "not always seen in its full and proper dimension" by the nation's citizens, a message sent to him loud and clear by voters who so forcefully rejected the institution's Democratic grip in this month's election. And talking to reporters earlier, he said he regretted not communicating more effectively Congress' achievements.

If it was a grim finale for many Democrats, it was a bittersweet end for a Republican, Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who is retiring after 38 years -- at the very moment his party wins control and the very moment he could have ascended to the lofty position of speaker.

Toward the end of yesterday's session, Mr. Foley yielded the speaker's chair to Mr. Michel so the outgoing Republican, beloved by almost as many Democrats as Republicans, could finally hold the reins of power.

"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to wield this gavel at least one time and actually sit in this chair," Mr. Michel told the speaker as both men were showered with applause. "It is something to behold."

Conspicuously absent from the nearly full House during most of the historic farewells, tributes and standing ovations was presumptive speaker Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican from Georgia whose partisan tactics helped topple the Democrats.

Throughout the day, departing Democrats made final appearances before a House chamber that was nearly empty during debate on a new world trade agreement.

A final vote with pride

Defeated Illinois Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski -- whose portrait hanging in a room where Democrats met earlier yesterday is a testament to his once formidable presence and power in the House -- mixed farewell comments with his speech on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

"More than 30 years ago, I came to Washington with one goal in mind, to help govern by writing good law," said Mr. Rostenkowski, who chaired the powerful Ways and Means committee until he was indicted on ethics charges this year.

"It has been a great privilege to serve in the House, but I am especially proud to leave today with this vote."

Masking their sadness

But the good cheer at the end of the historic session capped a day of anxiety for most Democrats, some of whom were still pointing fingers at one another, and the president, for their party's gigantic loss, while others tried to mask their sadness with humor or resignation.

"I want to go upstairs and see if they've chiseled my name off the door yet," said Rep. Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts, who will return next year but without his title as chairman of the Rules Committee.

Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, one of the few surviving Democratic powerhouses, who similarly loses his chairmanship

of the sprawling Energy & Commerce committee, said he welcomed the "smaller workload."

"I'm going to find productive things to occupy my time," he said.

Many retiring Democrats said they were particularly happy not to return to face Mr. Gingrich in the speaker's chair and Republicans holding the gavel of every committee.

"I leave with a very heavy heart and mixed emotions," said Rep. William J. Hughes of New Jersey, who came to Congress with the last big group of new Democratic members, the post-Watergate reform class of 1974.

"I'm happy I'm not coming back to serve in the minority. I can say that without any equivocation."

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