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Rep. Thomas Brings Edgy Intellect to Medicare Debate : Congress: Bakersfield Republican emerges as a major force in reform effort. But even allies concede he is volatile.

October 24, 1995|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Tempers exploded and emotions ran amok in the House of Representatives in the weeks leading up to last Thursday's vote on Medicare. And so it was probably inevitable that an exasperated senior Democrat busted out of a closed committee room, called the GOP "a bunch of fascists" and lurched at a Republican.

"Let go of my tie!" yelped Bill Thomas, the Republican congressman from Bakersfield, as a television camera memorialized the harmless tiff that came to be known as "the brawl in the hall."

Around this civilized place, any such display is tantamount to a bar fight, the act of a man pushed to the brink. And so it might have been equally inevitable that the target was the tart-tongued Thomas, a lawmaker with an intellect so sharp he is considered one of the brightest members of the House, and a temper so mercurial, some say he may be one of the meanest.

GOP colleagues heap praise on him but acknowledge his rough edges. "Once in a while he kind of erupts," conceded his friend Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.). And admiring Santa Clarita Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon allows: "He's impatient with people who know less than he does. . . . He does not come across as a humble person."

Relegated to minority status in Congress for 16 years, the once-obscure Thomas has emerged as "the brains behind" the Medicare Preservation Act approved last week, revamping for the first time in 30 years the government insurance plan that covers 37 million seniors. He arguably is the most powerful member of the California delegation and an influential part of the new GOP majority.

As chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee, this bespectacled, nine-term congressman sits at the center of the most vital plank of his party's seven-year plan to wipe out the deficit. If Medicare reform fails, so goes the balanced budget. It was his task to cut growth by a whopping $270 billion, the single largest chunk of deficit savings. And he is tampering with a health plan so vital to the well-being of the nation's politically potent seniors that it has been called "the third rail"--touch it and die.

But many say there are few lawmakers better suited to the painstaking task of rewriting a thicket of techno-jargon than the former Bakersfield College government instructor who considers Jefferson's "Manual" "a fun book," who can tell you precisely what's in his pants pockets without looking, who takes apart computers and rearranges the insides for a good time. When Republicans convened this session to run the House for the first time in 40 years, they asked Thomas to preside to make sure the party was not embarrassed by amateur parliamentary gaffes.

The aristocratic tone of voice and sometimes imperious bearing that Democrats found imminently ignorable those many years is grating and exasperating now that the gavel is in his hand.

He couldn't care less. Generally speaking, Thomas is quite pleased with himself. For the first time in 17 years he goes to work in the morning with the votes to accomplish what he wants. His schoolmasterly penchant for explaining anything--from the merits of a good, cheap, utilitarian pen to the properties of liquefied natural gas--has found the perfect home in the complicated world of Medicare.

"I have some knacks, one of them is retention," Thomas explains confidently while riding one recent afternoon through his Kern County district in his burgundy Ford Taurus. "I can retain numbers. I comprehend. That's one of my talents. Other people have other skills, interpersonal maybe, or backslappers, or whatever it is they do. My stock in trade always has been knowledge."

If there is one thing Thomas cannot abide, it is not knowing something. He never took shop at Garden Grove High School so he took apart an engine and put it back together. When he cleans his car, he takes the seats out. It occurred to him when he joined the health subcommittee in 1993 that he didn't know much about Medicare, so he spent the next two years studying it. Now fluent in acronyms and subsections, he comes to the table armed with the facts and expects as much of his colleagues. They often disappoint. That's when he blows.

"I don't suffer fools lightly," the congressman said unabashedly when asked to explain his occasional explosions of temper.

The eruptions build like an angry volcano. Something rubs him the wrong way--most recently Hayward Democrat Pete Stark's suggestion during a Ways and Means meeting that Newt Gingrich took a bribe from the American Medical Assn.

Thomas leans forward on crossed arms. His voice is a nasal staccato, every consonant enunciated. His eyes shift side to side. "When you TALK the way you talk, MIS-ter Stark, you BET-ter have the facts to BACK IT UP. . . .," he barks, proceeding to brand him "childish" and "an embarrassment" until someone suggests the debate go on with "a little less heat."

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