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ELECTIONS : Lawmakers Return With Regrets, New Hopes : Congress: Valley legislators come home for the fall campaign season after a session they say was marred by partisan bickering.

October 10, 1994|JEFF LEEDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

San Fernando Valley lawmakers, eager to return home to take up their reelection campaigns in earnest, are leaving behind a legislative session they say was rife with spiteful partisan wrangling and missed opportunities.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who has served in Washington for 20 years, said, "This was probably the nastiest Congress I've seen since I've been in office."

Additionally, this fall promises an unusually harsh election campaign for the Democrats, who expected at the outset of the session to return home with extensive legislative achievements. Instead, turmoil on Capitol Hill has prevented easy passage of many bills and fueled public perceptions of gridlock.

Reflecting on their accomplishments this session, Valley Democrats lauded passage of the $30-billion crime bill, but lamented the defeat of health care legislation.

Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills), serving his ninth term, said he was particularly proud of an amendment he co-authored to the crime bill that requires the federal government to reimburse states for part of the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants.

"For the first time, the federal government is owning up to the cost of our own failure to patrol our borders," Beilenson said. He also cited as a major accomplishment a plan to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving long-term earthquake relief.

But increasing partisanship is making life difficult for moderates in Congress and diminishing their prospects of passing meaningful legislation, he said.

"We could have had helpful health care reform," he said. While the issue is likely to come up again in the next session, the program "will have to be less sweeping and it may have to allow states to act as the laboratories of change instead of imposing a whole new system for the country overnight."

Despite bitter disappointment over health care and failure to pass a campaign finance reform measure, "it's been a productive Congress," said Beilenson, who is considered vulnerable in this fall's elections because of a strong challenge from well-financed Republican Richard Sybert.

Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), serving his first term, says life in Congress has been "very educational." McKeon, who served as president of the GOP's 47-member freshman class, counts among his accomplishments a successful battle to tighten the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition of "religious harassment" in the workplace. EEOC officials withdrew their plan after McKeon voiced objections to it.

However, McKeon said he was struck by the level of partisanship.

"The country is becoming more polarized. It looks like it's going to continue in that direction," he said. McKeon expressed disappointment that Congress passed no form of health care reform, saying "the climate was ripe" for at least incremental change.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), serving his sixth term, said he was elated with a provision in the crime bill to deploy 100,000 new police officers. Another provision is designed to increase the ranks of the border patrol by 1,000 each year for the next four years. Along with Beilenson, he wrote the section of the bill aimed at reimbursing states for the cost of imprisoning illegal immigrants.

"We've been doing some down-to-earth, nitty-gritty work," Berman said.

But like other Democrats, he said Congress missed a golden opportunity to overhaul the health care system.

And Berman laid some of the blame at the feet of the President.

"We tried to make a massive, revolutionary change without a foundation," he said. "The Administration's approach was too bureaucratic, and the Republicans made a political decision not to allow even improvement to the system to pass. But the mistakes made by the Administration were the mistakes of the well-intentioned."

Waxman, serving his 10th term, found himself in the spotlight throughout the session as a leading critic of the tobacco industry and a vocal advocate of universal health insurance.

"We learned more this year about the tobacco industry than we have in the previous 10 years," he said. Waxman presided over a series of hearings on the industry and blasted tobacco company executives for allegedly concealing scientific evidence regarding the connection between smoking and health problems.

"We were shocked to learn that the tobacco companies had been manipulating the level of nicotine in cigarettes to keep people addicted," he said.

But he considered Congress' failure to pass any form of health reform to be a serious setback. He said the White House waited too long to propose its program and made the plan too complicated.

The lion's share of the blame, however, lies with the Republican Party, he said.

He accused GOP lawmakers of launching "mean-spirited and vitriolic attacks" against the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"They have come to realize that personal attacks work," he said.

Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale), serving his 11th term, ranked securities reform and a provision in the crime bill to punish sexual predators as his top accomplishments for the session.

But he expressed mixed feelings about the crime bill, which was lambasted by Republicans for spending too much money on prevention measures.

"The bill grew everywhere it went. It was growing much too rapidly, and most of the money was going to rather worthless social programs," he said.

While Democrats and Republicans became more partisan, public perceptions of Congress worsened, Moorhead said.

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