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Renegade Democrat in House Escapes Clinton's Wrath : Politics: White House recognizes plight of a woman elected from GOP district. Those with more politically 'safe' seats may be judged more harshly.

April 28, 1993|WILLIAM J. EATON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.) has to be classified as a risk taker. She ran for the U.S. House in a district where a Republican had held the seat for 24 years and Democrats were a shrinking minority.

But "3M," as she is sometimes known because of her lengthy name, defied the odds and squeaked through to victory in the affluent suburban area west and northwest of Philadelphia.

Now she has taken another political gamble: She was the only freshman Democrat and the only member of her party from the Northeast to vote against President Clinton's entire economic program.

The Clinton White House already has shown that it doesn't take such matters lightly. "We're taking names," one Administration official said recently. Lawmakers who stray too often or on key votes can expect the Clinton cold shoulder.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (D-Ala.) is among a handful of legislators who have learned that lesson. For criticizing and voting against Clinton's economic plan, the White House has taken steps against Shelby ranging from transferring more than 90 federal jobs out of his state to refusing to grant him extra tickets to a White House ceremony honoring the University of Alabama national championship football team.

Margolies-Mezvinsky has so far escaped Democratic scorn, with the Administration and party leaders in the House instead acknowledging how the demographics of her district put her in a political vise.

"You have to consider that she's coming from an ultra-Republican district," said a top staff aide to a leading House Democrat.

The Administration's response to her plight is, in turn, sending signals to other Democrats, providing a clearer picture of how the White House and congressional leaders will define disloyalty.

If the reprisals against Shelby indicated how the Administration will react to what it regards as renegade Democrats, the sensitivity shown to Margolies-Mezvinsky suggests the hammer will be applied selectively. Clearly, House Democrats from areas regarded as more politically "safe" will be judged more harshly.

"It was not easy to be the only freshman Democrat to vote against the President," Margolies-Mezvinsky said recently. "But I had run on a platform which said that I wouldn't vote for raising the (top) tax rate or for an across-the-board tax increase.

"Am I voting with an eye toward reelection?" she said. "No."

"Am I voting my conscience on the way I ran (for office)? Yes."

Wrist slapping by a President is as old as the White House, and it has varied in effectiveness and popularity. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) suggested that he was not too happy with the Clinton Administration's retaliation against Shelby, noting that he has to seek support from all the Democratic senators on a variety of issues and thus cannot afford to offend any of them because of the way they vote.

A close ally of Clinton's who held a major role in the transition said the White House was far too heavy-handed with Shelby, making the reprisals against him into a public show rather than sending a more discreet message that only he would appreciate.

As a result, Shelby has become a hero in his state for standing up to the White House, perhaps strengthening his resolve to oppose Clinton without fear of retribution at the polls.

Despite her votes against Clinton's economic package, Margolies-Mezvinsky, 50, insisted that she admires the President and hopes his program will work. She has a saxophone--symbol of the Clinton campaign--on the window sill in her Capitol Hill office.

"I support many of the initiatives the President offered in his economic package," she said. "Head Start and other worthy programs, like childhood immunization . . . will save us money in the long run." Those programs should have high priorities, "but within the budget we already have."

Margolies-Mezvinsky's outlook on federal spending, deficits and debt could find her in the opposition to key components of Clinton's program as it moves through Congress. While the number of Democratic defections in the House was small on the first votes on the economic package, the more difficult choices will be made this spring and summer.

"Congress too often takes the easy road out," Margolies-Mezvinsky said in a recent newsletter. "Like a family planning its budget, we need to prioritize, make tough decisions, and do without some things. . . . Funding must be based on reality and not an idealistic irresponsibility."

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