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House GOP Charts California Agenda : Congress: Gingrich says focus will be on illegal immigration, military procurement. White House defends record in state, which could hold key in '96 election.


WASHINGTON — Newly empowered House Republicans, mindful of the Golden State's pivotal influence on national politics and the economy, intend to pursue a California agenda stressing immigration reform and increased defense spending, according to incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Gingrich said he began discussing his priorities with Gov. Pete Wilson several days before Tuesday's election, which imposed stiff new restrictions on access to health care and education for illegal immigrants in California, sent scores of GOP newcomers to statehouses across the nation and put Republicans in charge of the U.S. House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

"I think on the whole issue of immigration, California's going to be very positive about what we'll be doing," Gingrich said in an interview with The Times upon his return to Washington this weekend. "And frankly, on defense procurement, it's going to be a significant boost to the California economy by the time we're done."

To some extent, the California plan represents a rhetorical repackaging of proposals contained in the "contract with America" signed by many GOP congressional candidates. But the Speaker-in-waiting's endorsement of tough federal measures to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into California--and to quickly deport some of those already in the state--appears to go beyond the terms of the party's national battle plan.

Gingrich's comments mark the opening salvo in what is certain to be a two-year battle between Republicans and Democrats to win the hearts and minds of Californians. As the nation's most populous state, California wields the greatest number of Electoral College votes in presidential elections. Its support will be critical to the political fate of President Clinton in 1996.

Informed of Gingrich's remarks, the White House fired back Saturday with warnings that Republicans should not assume the state is theirs for the taking.

"We're certainly not conceding anything on California," said Tom Epstein, the White House's point man on California issues. "We certainly think we've done a good job for California and will continue to do so."

Democrats clearly recognize the importance of the state in their strategy for holding the White House. Since taking office last year, Clinton has made 15 trips to California. Another visit is scheduled for December.

In public remarks Saturday, Gingrich continued to strike a combative tone toward the Clinton White House, which is trying to downplay the significance of last week's Republican sweep. Rather than interpreting the GOP victories as a rejection of Clinton or congressional Democrats, the White House says the election demonstrated widespread restlessness among voters who do not believe that the changes promised by the President are coming fast enough.

In speeches and interviews, Gingrich has maintained that the election results represented an overwhelming electoral repudiation of the economic policies and social programs pursued by Clinton and his congressional allies.

"We owe (President Clinton) no fealty on public policy domestically. We owe him no automatic obedience on any domestic policy question," Gingrich said on CNN's "Evans and Novak" program. "But I told the President before he went to Asia that he has our prayers, and he has our support as the President of the United States while he's overseas."

Elaborating on the aggressive legislative agenda the Republicans want to pursue next year, Gingrich said he would favor a vote to repeal this year's congressional ban on the sale of certain assault weapons. As part of a GOP effort to reduce the number of congressional committees and staff members, he said he will seek to eliminate the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee and the panel that deals with the District of Columbia.

At the same time, Gingrich called a proposal by fellow Republican Rep. Bill Archer of Texas to consider eliminating the federal income tax "a little bold," indicating it is unlikely to become part of the GOP's official action plan anytime soon.

On issues critical to California, Gingrich said in his interview with The Times that he wants the House to pass tough new measures to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants--mainly from the south--and to step up military procurement of new weapons. California's border with Mexico is the primary crossing point for illegal immigrants, and the collapse of the state's aerospace industry has been a direct consequence of declining defense spending.

"I think sometimes people back East tend to forget how vital California is to our economic future and how much it is our launching pad into the Pacific Rim," Gingrich said. Asked whether his legislative strategy is motivated in part by California's political importance, he responded: "It's our largest state."

On immigration, Gingrich advocated bold changes almost certain to create the same kind of political furor nationally as Proposition 187 sparked in California.

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