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Rep. Joe Baca realizes a dream with bill honoring golf legend Arnold Palmer

The Rialto Democrat, head of the Golf Caucus, has worked for five years to see Palmer awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Both celebrate in the Oval Office as Obama signs the legislation.

October 01, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Some lawmakers have built reputations for their work on healthcare, military affairs or banking regulation. For Rep. Joe Baca, it's golf.

On Wednesday, the Democrat from Rialto joined Arnold Palmer in the Oval Office to celebrate President Obama's signing of his bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the golfing legend.

"You're an inspiration to every one of us who has touched the game," Baca said at a Capitol Hill gathering afterward with Palmer and other congressional golf enthusiasts.

Palmer, 80, joins more than 100 other recipients of Congress' highest civilian honor -- luminaries the likes of George Washington and Frank Sinatra, as well as golfer Byron Nelson. The award recognizes Palmer's "service to the nation in promoting excellence and good sportsmanship in golf." Baca also cited Palmer's charitable work.

A former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Baca was elected to the House in 1999 and has been involved in other legislative pursuits, including expanding federal nutrition programs.

But when it comes to his passion for golf, he never misses a stroke.

He's the head of the Golf Caucus, which has more than 100 members. He's played golf with Palmer, calling it one of the greatest experiences of his life. On Wednesday, he invited Obama to play a round with him.

It took Baca more than five years to get the Palmer legislation to the president's desk. Now that it's been signed, the lawmakers can focus on another bill he's sponsoring -- to award the medal to Tiger Woods. The Palmer legislation passed the House this year with only one dissenting vote, from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose spokeswoman said: "He always votes against awarding private citizens publicly funded medals like this."

"I love the game," said Baca, 62, who took up golf at 39 and is considered one of Congress' best. He practices his swing with a net in the congressional gym.

Baca's efforts underscore how a lawmaker's passion for something can transform into legislation. He called Wednesday's moment special because it was the first time in his decade in Congress that he had been in the Oval Office to witness a president signing his legislation.

"I'll be getting a pen as well from the president," Baca said.

It will probably go on display in his office with the picture of Palmer and him on the golf course.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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