WASHINGTON — For Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), some days it seems as if these are the best of times. A first-time father at 58, he rhapsodizes over helping feed his 16-month-old triplets. He rejoices that he and his 35-year-old wife, Rhonda, still find time for surfing. Though "totally exhausted," he says, he's happier than he's ever been.
And from the outside, at least, it looks as though life should be equally sweet for Rohrabacher at work. After all, the nine-term House veteran has always been one of the most conservative members of Congress. And his fellow conservatives now dominate the House, the Senate and the White House too.
Yet as good as all this seems, standing at the pinnacle of his career, Rohrabacher faces the possibility that one of his fondest dreams may be denied him — chairmanship of the House Science Committee.
A senior member of the committee, bursting with ideas for commercializing space exploration and eager to tackle the failings of the shuttle program, Rohrabacher is in line to be named chairman when a new Congress convenes in January 2007. His colleagues, mindful of his dedication to science issues, voted him two extra years as chairman of the space subcommittee.
But a committee chairmanship is a political plum awarded by House leaders for loyalty. And Rohrabacher has always marched to the tune of a different drummer. An iconoclast with Libertarian views, he has staked out independent positions on issues including medical marijuana (he supports medicinal use of the drug) and the Patriot Act (he opposes unrestricted police powers).
And he doesn't play the inside Washington game of trading votes with colleagues. He plays the outside media game of blasting officialdom to the rafters. His website once used the slogan "Fighting for Freedom and Having Fun."
Republican colleagues have until now tolerated his independent streak. "He's funny and intelligent and has a philosophical depth that others don't have," said Rep. Mike Souder (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on narcotics, who has frequently debated Rohrabacher on drug issues. "We try to find common ground."
But now, Rohrabacher concedes, he may be paying a price for his independence.
"My leadership in opposing making the police powers of the Patriot Act permanent was a heady thing," Rohrabacher said in a recent interview. "If they decide I'm too independent, I won't get that committee chairmanship. No one beat me over the head, but that's the understanding."
A liberal Republican colleague who often finds himself at odds with Rohrabacher confirms the prognosis. "I have some of the same habits in the other direction," Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) said with a laugh. "My staff talks to me about running for [chairmanship of] the Education Committee and I say, 'Good luck.' You buck the leadership around here and ."
Castle let the sentence hang in midair, but Rohrabacher could well finish it for him.
When Rohrabacher first came to Congress in 1989, he said, he was threatened on a congressional pay-raise vote, warned that if he voted against increasing salaries for his fellow members of Congress he would never get a good committee assignment. He voted no.
"I figured if I gave in to that type of pressure, the next time they really needed my vote, there would be twice as much pressure," he recalled. Ever since, he has understood that he could never ask for a bridge for his district — luckily, the 46th District is mostly beach.
Freed from the usual protocols of vote trading, Rohrabacher has cast an unpredictable profile in Congress, mostly conservative, but sometimes at odds with the White House.
An opponent of abortion, he nevertheless urged President Bush to expand research on stem cells. A guardian against federal government intrusion into state and local affairs, he voted against the No Child Left Behind Act.
And, a supporter of the war against terrorism, Rohrabacher nevertheless balked when the House debated the Continuity in Representation Act, which would allow expedited elections in case large numbers of congressmen were killed in a terrorist attack. The bill passed 329 to 68. Rohrabacher was one of three Republicans to vote no.
Even more unusual than Rohrabacher's voting record is his debating style. In an atmosphere of sound-bite television manners, Rohrabacher is a table pounder — against same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, the regime in Iraq.
With a passion for his causes and an eclectic voting record, Rohrabacher is in the rare — and not always welcome — position of not being courted by House leaders on important votes. During the cliffhanger vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which passed the House after hours of debate in July on a 217-215 vote, Rohrabacher was neutral until the last minute, when he cast an "aye" vote. But he said no one from the administration approached.
"Darn, I didn't even get invited down to the White House or anything," he said.
Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, is a lifelong surfer who, as the Almanac of American Politics put it, likes to make waves. He is a fierce anti-Communist — he tried to block expanded trade with China and Vietnam — and worked closely with Afghan rebels during the Soviet occupation. He is convinced that illegal immigration will bankrupt the United States and opposed a Silicon Valley-backed proposal for 600,000 skilled foreign workers to receive temporary visas.
Rohrabacher calls himself "a populist, Libertarian conservative," but he believes that "having children has taken the rough edge off my ideology. Now I'm just trying to make a better world for them."
These days, in the wake of the space shuttle Discovery's well-publicized problems, Rohrabacher believes the program "has lost the faith of the American people" and advocates a National Endowment for Space & Aeronautics that would fund innovations by private entrepreneurs.
Now, with the Science Committee chairmanship hanging in the balance, all Rohrabacher can do is hope his colleagues like the idea of a chairman with a sense of passion and humor. That, and become a player in all the committee's work.
He recently hosted a dinner for NASA administration Mike Griffin and introduced him at a luncheon for aerospace engineers in Long Beach.
"My strategy is very much to become an activist," he said. "I'll make it a point to go to all the hearings."
In return, he hopes, the House leadership "will understand that where I'm very independent and causing them heartburn on other issues, on science issues I'm going to be someone they can count on."
After the birth of Rohrabacher's triplets — son Christian and daughters Annika and Tristen — a reporter went to the congressman's Huntington Beach house to ask if he was employing an illegal domestic. He was not.
The in vitro insemination process that resulted in the pregnancy, he said, changed his views on stem cell research. "I realized then that a sperm is not potential life until it's put into a woman's body," he told reporters.
Rohrabacher and Christopher Cox, former Republican congressman from neighboring Newport Beach and now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, go back a long way. They both attended USC, though Rohrabacher was a night student in graduate school getting his master's degree in American studies when Cox was an undergrad. And they were both working in the Reagan White House when they decided to launch races for Congress in adjoining districts in 1988. Both won.
Recently, when Rohrabacher was boarding a plane for his frequent commute to Washington, a constituent commiserated on the ordeal. "Just think," said the voter, "now that you're head of the SEC you don't have to worry about that anymore." Rohrabacher's comment: "Ever since I shaved my beard, people confuse me with Chris Cox."