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Check Scandal Puts Foley On Defensive

March 22, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The bad-check scandal at the House bank and a general feeling of legislative frustration have combined to put Speaker Thomas Foley, in his third year as the nation’s top-ranking Democrat, on the defensive.

And the jury isn’t likely to be Foley’s Democratic colleagues, who elected him speaker, but the voters who could well turn out dozens of incumbent lawmakers this fall and put a dent in the party’s House majority.

President Bush is sensing the weakness, attacking ″paralysis″ on Capitol Hill in a speech Friday.

″The Democratic leadership is in disarray,″ Bush said.

Vetoing a Democratic tax bill, Bush ridiculed the House for its scandals: ″Needless to say, I will not send it back via the House Post Office.″ The post office is the subject of an embezzlement and drug-selling investigation.

Foley spent the past week bearing the brunt of anger from lawmakers in trouble because of free overdrafts on their accounts at the now-shuttered House bank.

The loudest critic, Rep. Joseph Early, D-Mass., shouted on the House floor that the speaker’s handling of the bank had been ″a disgrace.″ Others were quieter, but said the same thing.

In interviews last week, Democratic House members voiced opinions ranging from full support for Foley to a call for his replacement.

″Clearly, the leadership has gotten a wake-up call,″ said Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan. ″A lot of members look at the next month or two as a test of (Foley’s) leadership.″

On Friday, Foley moved to dissipate the heat by canceling one relatively minor perk for lawmakers - the ability to get free prescription drugs at a doctor’s office in the basement below the Capitol dome. He also announced plans to raise the fee members pay to use the House gymnasium, now just $100 a year.

He also said he would go ahead this week with a resolution to create a House administrator’s post. That would remove the institution’s nuts-and-bolts operations from patronage supervision and create a professional manager.

″The buck stops in the speaker’s office,″ said Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who spoke of anger and frustration among his colleagues at the handling of the bank scandal.

Foley must make ″substantial changes around here - get this behind us so we can get back to work,″ he said, citing the need to eliminate political jobs and remaining perks. Those include free parking at the Capitol and local airports, discounts at Capitol Hill stationery stores, free mailing, satellite transmissions and the use of official photographers.

″I don’t need a potted plant from the Botanical Garden,″ Durbin said. ″Heck, they die in three days anyway.″

The real nervousness lies ahead. Last week’s primary elections in Illinois ended the terms of five congressional incumbents, a stark reminder of how strong anti-Washington feelings are back home.

How incumbents do in primary elections over the coming months, and how House Democrats fare in November’s elections will have a lot to do with whether Foley returns for a second full term as speaker, his colleagues said.

Despite dire predictions from some political analysts, Foley has said he doesn’t expect voters to dump large numbers of incumbents.

″I do not believe that we will see any kind of a firestorm of defeat in the House of Representatives based on the operations of the post office or the bank,″ said the speaker.

One knowledgeable former House Democrat said he believed Foley’s status would be ″dicey″ if the party loses more than 20 seats in November.

But a loyal member of the leadership team, Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., said, ″There are those grumblers out there, but that’s all it is - a little grumbling.″

Derrick said Foley ″is absolutely in no trouble.″

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