OUT FRONT: Passion in the House Comes in One-Minute Spurts
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congressman Dan Burton, who sold insurance before he came to Washington 10 years ago, stands before his colleagues, a folded dollar bill clipped to his lapel, a twinkle in his eye, and lets a scroll of butcher paper unroll onto the floor of the House.
It had just arrived, by Federal Express, from grocer Steve Knott of Knott’s Food Market in Greenwood, Ind. It bore the signatures, thousands of them, of Knott’s customers and Burton’s constituents.
They are opposed to President Clinton’s deficit-reduction bill - the bill Clinton says will right the ship of state if passed and that the commentators say will sink the Clinton presidency if defeated.
And Steve Knott, says Republican Dan Burton in a triumphant stage whisper, is a Democrat 3/8 He voted for Clinton 3/8 And he’s against this bill 3/8 So are his customers 3/8 So is the country 3/8
The Capitol’s phones are going wild - peaking at 450,000 calls an hour, 10 times normal - and yet, strangely, this argument is only partly about the merits of the legislation and more about what the American people think of it.
″Yes, we’re getting a lot of phone calls,″ cries Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., pointing a finger at the Republicans.
″It is easy for politicians to scare the people,″ he says, the finger wagging. ″You ought to be ashamed of yourself for some of the misinformation you are frightening the country with. Freedom of speech gives you the right to say anything you want. But you’ve got a conscience.″
It is a congressional debate: arm-waving and sloganeering, wisecracking and wild exaggeration, a debate about ruin and salvation, about Ronald Reagan’s legacy and Bill Clinton’s future. It’s politics, but passion, too.
Throughout the Democrats who will vote against their president - and on the losing side in the 218-216 roll call - sit silent, for the most part. Ever those who will vote with Clinton sound defensive.
Typically, Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo. a supporter, offers this half- hearted defense: ″The only thing worse than having a budget you’re not 100 percent in love with is having no budget at all.″
Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., a freshman, makes his final decision - after getting phone calls from Clinton, his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Education Secretary Richard Riley. He does it alone, in his office. He notes the time on his watch: 8:42 p.m., little more than an hour before the vote. He votes yes.
Earlier in the debate, freshman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., fresh-faced and fresh to Washington, lectures his elders. He says this bill may make sense to the Democrats who rule here but it makes no sense to the rest of America.
″Washington, D.C.,″ he says, ″is 68 square miles, surrounded by reality. The people out there in reality have a different view.″
Outside, an anti-tax Democrat from New Jersey, Rep. Rob Andrews, once the youngest member of the House (he’s been here two years and observed his 36th birthday Wednesday), conducts a news conference on the lawn. He wants to announce that 179 other congressmen have signed on to his plan to adjourn Congress, then call a special session dealing with a single topic: cutting the federal budget.
Inside, the day passes in one-minute speeches, 60-second outbursts of emotion.
Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., mocks the Republicans.
″They now say start over,″ he says. ″They mean do nothing. We debate on 5 August 1993. They focus on November 1994.″
Rep. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, taunts the Democrats, urging them to vote no: ″If you do, our president will forgive you. If you don’t, your constituents may not.″
Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., says he is a Republican, but as an American he feels the bill will do harm. ″As an American, if this bill passes, I hope I am wrong.″
Rep. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., says he represents ″one of the most Democratic districts held by a Republican,″ the hilly, affluent suburbs of Pittsburgh. The district gave Clinton 55 percent of its votes, George Bush 29 percent.
″Don’t you get it?″ he thunders at the Democrats. ″This is not the medicine they voted for.″
In Greenwood, Ind., Dixie Knott, wife of grocer Steve (″we’re about as Hoosier as you can get″) explains on the telephone that the petition to Rep. Burton was her husband’s idea. He put the roll of paper out by the greeting cards at 10 a.m. Tuesday and by 2 p.m. Wednesday about 5,000 people had signed.
″We don’t want gridlock,″ says Mrs. Knott. ″We had that for a long time. But we want Congress to realize that people out here are serious. They want cuts.″
She says she and Knott voted for Clinton. She says she would again if the choice were the same.
She missed Burton’s performance on C-Span, she says; she was out delivering groceries.