Bentley ends career in Congress with characteristic attack on trade pact

November 30, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As Helen Delich Bentley delivered her final burst of fury from the House floor, nobody could accuse her of abandoning her image as a dogged defender of American manufacturing and trade interests.

Even as aides packed moving boxes in her Capitol Hill office, Mrs. Bentley took to a lectern on the House floor yesterday to wag an angry finger and blast the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

'Hydra-headed monster'

"It is unfortunate that we will not put off this vote until we can determine what kind of a Hydra-headed monster is being foisted on the American people," Mrs. Bentley said. "Our government will not be the same."

Her speech against the trade pact provided a fitting end to the congressional tenure of the five-term Republican, who took Japan-bashing to a new level in 1987, when she smashed a Japanese-made radio with a sledgehammer on the steps of the Capitol.

Her opposition to GATT proved futile as the measure sailed through the House. But neither that nor the fact that yesterday was her final day in action on the House floor could cool her fervor.

"It is rather poignant that my last vote was on GATT," the 70-year-old Mrs. Bentley acknowledged in an interview after her speech. "But it is a vote that I will be very proud of in years to come."

After she left the floor, members of Mrs. Bentley's staff proudly pointed out that their boss had received phone calls of support for her speech "from all over the country."

"I have not lost my battling ability," Mrs. Bentley said in the interview.

Out of office

Once her term ends officially in January, the outgoing congresswoman will no longer wage her battles from the floor of Congress. She will be out of elective office because of her bitter loss in September's Republican gubernatorial primary.

Upon leaving Congress, she plans to launch a company to lobby for the maritime industry, so dear to her and many of her Baltimore County constituents.

"I'm very proud of what I've done for the party over the years," she said. "I'm the one who made the congressional district alignment such that another Republican could win in my district besides me."

Her party activism provided additional irony for Mrs. Bentley, who labored for 10 years as part of the House's Republican minority: She is now busy packing her office, searching to place staff members in jobs and raising money to retire her gubernatorial campaign debt just as her Republican colleagues finally are savoring the taste of victory.

And although Mrs. Bentley talked bravely in the interview about always looking forward and not getting into a political contest if "it's going to devour you," she did allow that she regrets not being able to return as part of a Republican-controlled Congress.

"That, I feel a little bit bad about," she said. "It bothers me that I won't be here when the Republicans are in charge."

Meanwhile, Maryland Democrats returning to Congress next year are grappling with their sudden loss of power, which has left them and many of their party brethren shocked, confused and in search of a new strategy.

'Frustration and anger'

"There is a lot of frustration and anger," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George's County. "We don't get to call the plays any more. The other guys are calling the plays, and the people in the stands are cheering for them."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore Democrat, said that while his party is no longer in control, it is determined to influence Congress.

"It is a new challenge, that's for sure," said Mr. Cardin, once considered a leading voice on health care reform, an issue that has been pushed to the side by the Republicans.

"But I think the consensus is that we are going to still have a big impact on what is going on. I think people are very positive about the role we are going to be playing."

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, another Baltimore Democrat who is waging an uphill battle for the No. 3 party leadership post in the House, said he has to stop himself "to take stock of all the changes."

He says Republicans tease him about no longer being able to fill in for the House speaker, with the Democrats now out of power.

"This world is kind of passing away," Mr. Mfume said. "I walked onto the floor past a group of Republicans and said, 'Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman.' Every one of them looked up. And sadly for us, there is more reality in that than humor."

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