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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ MARK Z. BARABAK

'Rope Burn Caucus' Has Message for GOP

November 24, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK

Nothing, it's been said, concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging.

Ask Brian Bilbray. The San Diego congressman spent much of election night on the scaffold, a political rope cinched around his neck. He survived, barely, and after that near-death experience the Republican lawmaker has this to say to leaders of his badly fractured party:

"You have a six-vote margin [in the House of Representatives]." The 10 or so members from closely contested districts "can stop anything from going anywhere," he continued. "You might have the name, but you won't get the gain unless you play ball with us."

Perhaps. Call them the "rope burn caucus," the handful of Republican House members who slipped the noose election day and now head to Washington with greatly concentrated minds. Three hail from California: Bilbray, Jim Rogan and Steve Kuykendall. Each proceeds at his own peril.

"Those will never be seats Republicans can take for granted," said political analyst Allan Hoffenblum. "There's always going to be a significant number of independent voters . . . to throw them out if they're perceived as too partisan."

For that reason, the fate of Bilbray and company offers an intriguing test of the GOP's commitment to pragmatism in the coming Congress. Each represents the very sort of moderate, swing district that Republicans need to protect to extend their majority past 2000. Listen to them and you'll hear not just the voice of moderation, but three whose political survival depends upon it.

*

Sometimes you find consolation where you can.

As he watched his election night lead melt like a shrinking ice sculpture, Bilbray kept thinking: Here was a chance to show his children "how somebody can lose with dignity."

His stoicism proved unnecessary. Bilbray prevailed by a scant 4,000 votes. He now reckons, "A lot of people voted against the party. They wanted to send a message to Washington." That message, as Bilbray reads it, was "frustration with what they perceive as partisan bickering."

After being elected in the 1994 Republican landslide, Bilbray went whole-hog for the conservative "contract with America." But then he opened some distance from pugnacious party leaders, veering off on issues such as gun control, abortion and campaign finance reform.

Now, Bilbray suggests, it's time for the party to join him, and move closer to the center. "They better be responsive to those of us from moderate districts," he warns members of the reconstituted House leadership. "Or else they won't get the votes they need to move their agenda."

*

Jim Rogan is no philosophical moderate. But his even-keel approach has proved critical to his success.

Deeply conservative, Rogan represents a Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena district that leans increasingly Democratic, thanks to a continuing influx of ethnic voters. He won by a narrow 3% margin, his second squeaker since first being elected in 1996.

What seemed to pull Rogan through both times is voters' sense that, basically, he's a nice guy and a smart one too. "It's attitudinal," said analyst Hoffenblum. "He may be a hard-core conservative, but he's not intolerant."

Indeed, Rogan talks up his ability to work across party lines and uses the word "bipartisan" like a mantra.

At the request of incoming Speaker Bob Livingston, Rogan drafted a memo recounting his time in Sacramento, where Assembly Republicans enjoyed a slim majority after the 1994 election. "The lesson we learned . . . was: You had to be able to reach across the aisle and work with your friends on the other side," Rogan said. "There's a big difference between a numerical majority and a governing majority."

All such blandishments aside, his vote on presidential impeachment, after a high-profile role under ousted Speaker Newt Gingrich, could send an early signal of Rogan's political

finesse--and the leeway granted by party leaders.

*

Given his druthers, it seems Steve Kuykendall would just as soon have the whole impeachment imbroglio go away, preferably before he takes office in January.

Assemblyman Kuykendall prevailed in California's closest congressional race, a 49%-46% nail-biter in the South Bay, after campaigning as a staunch moderate, favoring abortion rights, certain gun controls--and keeping quiet on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The political pendulum, he says, has swung back "from the maximum extreme" after the GOP landslide of 1994. "Voters are more interested in what you can do on specific issues than carrying ideological flames into the fire," Kuykendall says.

After spending a week getting oriented in Washington, he suggests that freshmen of both parties agree "it's time we try to lower the rhetoric a little bit."

And like Bilbray, he urges party leaders in Congress to pay heed to the GOP's most endangered members--if only for their own good. Says Kuykendall: "They're going to have to listen to us, quite frankly, if they want to keep the majority in the House."

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