WASHINGTON — The marathon Medicare overhaul negotiations in Congress had dragged on for hours, and several committee members wandered off for fresh air and sustenance. At 9:30 p.m., finally ready for a vote, aides took a head count and realized they were one Republican short.
Out went the call, and minutes later in walked the vote: Rep. Darrell E. Issa, straight from the House gym, in shorts and a sweaty T-shirt, a towel draped around his neck. "That gets you some points with the chairman," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "He's been someone we could count on from the first day."
But casually coming to the aid of one of the most powerful committees in the House is clearly not enough to satisfy the ambitions of this wealthy businessman turned sophomore lawmaker.
After fewer than three years in Congress, the conservative Republican from Vista in San Diego County has set his sights on unseating Gov. Gray Davis, pumping $1 million of his car-alarm fortune into a recall campaign and declaring himself a candidate before the question has even qualified for the ballot.
It is a power play that delights and infuriates his colleagues in Washington, but hardly surprises them.
"In this town, Darrell Issa is known as a guy waiting to run for some statewide office in California," said independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "He is part of a new political class that can write checks to bypass all the groundwork candidates used to do."
Issa is known for nothing if not his ambition. Bursting onto the landscape five years ago with no political experience, he spent $9 million of his own money on a run for the U.S. Senate and lost. Two years later, he settled for a seat in Congress, but few expected him to follow the plodding career path of many politicians, amassing the seniority that opens doors in Washington.
From the start, Congress appeared to move too slowly for someone of his pace and patience, a kid from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who turned a brush with juvenile car theft into an auto security fortune.
"He is not content to be a back-bencher," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
During the state's energy crisis, Issa was tapped by California's GOP congressional delegation as a point man. He met with Vice President Dick Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, urging federal intervention to bring relief to the state.
Perhaps Issa's most notable achievement in his short Washington tenure is his work on Arab relations after the Sept. 11 attacks. As one of a half-dozen Arab Americans in Congress -- he is a Lebanese Christian -- Issa used his understanding of the culture to meet with Arab leaders and give some voice to an often-ignored community in a pro-Israel Congress. He met with Yasser Arafat in April.
But that work will inevitably take a back seat to the burgeoning recall drive. And if Issa's gubernatorial aspirations should cost him his House seat, the 49-year-old would leave behind no deep policy footprints, no legislation with his name on it.
"I made sure my district was properly dealt with, but I can't claim a major piece of legislation," the congressman conceded in a telephone interview from California, where he spent the Fourth of July recess stoking what could be the first gubernatorial recall in state history. "You discover when you get to a body like this, where people wait 15 or 20 years to become a subcommittee chairman, you have to work with them ... in a process that may not have your name on it."
Issa has struggled in Congress against a reputation for excessive ambition. He was scarcely sworn in for his first term in 2001 when rumors of his aspirations for higher office swirled.
"The scuttlebutt everywhere was why invest in Darrell; he's going to leave and go to the Senate," Issa recalled.
He worked hard to prove otherwise, angling to land a seat on the prestigious Energy and Commerce Committee. Turned down once as a freshman, he tried again in January, delivering to the steering committee not a run-of-the-mill letter, but an impressive, high-tech CD-ROM presentation, one copy for each of the 33 members.
"It wowed them," a senior House aide recalled.
But four months later, it was not the Senate that had attracted Issa's eye, but the statehouse. Sighting a weakened governor and a nascent recall campaign, Issa gave the effort money, legitimacy and life, and gave himself another shot at the statewide office he has always craved.
Yet, when asked last week why he wants to leave Congress before his second term is through, Issa seemed taken aback by the question.
"Nobody said I want to leave Congress," he said, even though he's made clear that he would risk his seat for a crack at the governorship.