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Jerry Lewis Stars in GOP Revolution : Congress: Bridge-building representative (sometimes confused with the actor) has emerged as one of the most influential Californians on the Hill.

June 04, 1995|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Armey soared to his current position as House majority leader--at the elbow of the guru-like Gingrich, a fixture on the Sunday talk shows--while Lewis occupies the less glamorous committee rooms of Capitol Hill. But it is there that he is making his mark, amassing scant public attention but considerable congressional influence.

His critics say he is wielding that clout to block the California desert protection bill, which created a new preserve in the east Mojave Desert. Environmentalists accuse him of holding up more than $300,000 in needed funds for park services, circumventing the intent of an act he fiercely opposed.

"Tourists now come to see this new preserve and there is garbage not being collected because Jerry Lewis is sitting on the money. That's taking it past pride to spite," said Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California Desert Committee in Whittier. "This is a man who can care, but he's acting like a little boy taking home his marbles."

Lewis, who protested last year that there was not enough money to fund such a sweeping act, said he was assured by the Department of the Interior and environmentalists that the funds existed to properly manage the East Mojave. He questions the need for more.

"Ironically, the National Park Service found enough money to put up signs restricting access in the preserve the day after the bill passed," Lewis said in a recent interview. "I have yet to see any evidence of a lack of funding."

When it comes to frugal spending, Lewis appears anything but moderate. His subcommittee has forged some of the deepest cuts in the $16.4-billion recision bill that President Clinton has threatened to veto. Lewis points to the cuts as evidence of his commitment to less--and more efficient--government, the conservatives' creed.

"Many people have been surprised. That has had an impact on the new young chargers who probably would have said, 'What's that moderate doing in that position?' " the congressman said. "But it is this moderate who is doing some major cutting."

But he believes in a government carefully carved. "The idea is not just to whack away, but to redirect," he explained from his Capitol Hill office, pulling a two-pound box of See's candy from his desk drawer. (He tried to reduce the high cost of peanuts under the peanut President, Jimmy Carter, and the confectioner has been sending a monthly supply of chocolates ever since.)

"I do not believe the institution of Congress will serve us long and well if there is a reflexive, knee-jerk philosophy. We need room in the tent for all kinds of Republicans."

While mastering the art of trade-offs and partisan compromise, Lewis has been largely loyal to the Gingrich agenda, voting for every provision of the "contract with America" except term limits. He also sides with the National Rifle Assn.'s efforts to overturn the assault weapons ban.

Still, there is an unwillingness by Lewis to march blindly in step. Lewis expressed his doubts about the advisability of a contract early on. Although he now sees it as an effective tool for guiding the troops, he doubts that a single-minded party is good for the country in the long run.

"I questioned the political advisability of a contract, but it served a purpose I didn't envision. It kept people focused and gave people like me a little time to learn to govern," Lewis said. "But it has encouraged an environment of working in lock-step, and I'm not sure that is good for any governing body, let alone any family."

In this day of with-me-or-agin-me partisanship, Lewis has found success on his terms.

"He does not make stem-winding speeches, he is not the rabble-rousing tub-thumping partisan that the new members seem to want," one California Democrat said. "Sometimes that has hurt him politically, that he is not someone driven by the blood lust that Newt is. Jerry is part of the mainstream Republican tradition, which may be a thing of the past, at least for awhile."

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