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Maverick Stakes Out Turf on Capitol Hill : New Congressman Dana Rohrabacher Sets Forth on Uphill Climb to Seniority

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Times Staff Writer

As the new year began, the makings of a new maverick conservative arrived in the Capitol: Dana Rohrabacher.

A former speech writer for President Reagan, Rohrabacher is ensconced in one of the safest GOP congressional districts in the country: the 42nd, which hugs the coast from Redondo Beach and Torrance to part of Orange County.

This affords him job security and a certain confidence. It means that someday he is likely to have the seniority to be a real power broker on Capitol Hill, and makes him one of a handful of Republican freshmen being closely watched as he launches his career as the South Bay’s newest congressman.

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During his first week in office after being sworn in Jan. 3, it was clear that Rohrabacher, 41, of Lomita, would be carving a special role for himself in the Republican Party’s conservative wing.

Rohrabacher had barely taken possession of his new office when he delivered a fiery speech in Washington on a favorite topic: “freedom fighters” around the world.

Because of his interest in foreign affairs and his rhetorical flair, Rohrabacher was already being compared in Washington to another Orange County conservative, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).

Though Rohrabacher’s political future looks bright, everyone has to start somewhere. Rohrabacher began his first week as the lowliest of freshmen, vying for the dregs of office space and jockeying for the bottom rung on House committees.

“You don’t usually get your first choice around here ...” Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said of the biannual competition for House committee assignments.

Rohrabacher got his first choice of committees: Science, Space and Technology, which he wanted because of the heavy concentration of high-tech and aerospace industries in his district.

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“I’ve always believed that with freedom and technology America can win the world,” Rohrabacher said enthusiastically, sitting behind the large oak desk in his new office. “This appointment will permit me to put that philosophy to work.”

But Rohrabacher got, as he put it, the “booby prize” for his second committee: the District of Columbia Committee . The panel is the last on most lists of members of Congress because the issues that are dealt with are difficult--gay rights, AIDS, budget--and there is no publicity payoff in their home districts.

Rep. Lewis tried to console Rohrabacher.

“I told him the value, really, was the Redskins tickets,” Lewis joked. “But he said he didn’t watch football.”

Still, Rohrabacher put on a good front, talking about how he could use the committee to promote conservative ideas for rejuvenating inner cities.

“One lesson I learned from Ronald Reagan is when you’re handed a lemon, you make lemonade,” he said.

“The most surprising thing you see and feel and hear is the partisanship of the House,” said former Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), the six-term veteran who was Rohrabacher’s predecessor. “No one understands that, even if they work down at the White House, until they become a member of the House and see it for themselves. It colors everything.” Even before he was sworn in, Rohrabacher got a lesson in partisanship as the Democratic-controlled House picked its new leader. Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Illinois) lost, inevitably, to Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas).

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The new congressman’s second vote, on the same day, drove home the point that hardball partisan politics runs the House. It came when Rohrabacher was called back to the House floor by a code of bells and lights from the clock above his office door.

He may as well have stayed where he was. In a straight party-line vote, the House easily adopted a rules change that would benefit the majority Democrats at the expense of Republicans.

“This is called raw political power being exercised,” said Rohrabacher as he dashed across Independence Avenue while afternoon clouds gathered over chilly Washington.

Still, let it be noted that the rookie was able to preserve, at least for a day, a 100% voting record.

“Once you’re sworn into the Congress of the United States,” said former Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), who retired from the 40th District, “you’re treated like a different person.” One day last year, at about this time, Rohrabacher decided he would run for Congress in the district being vacated by Lungren.

For him, the good news is he succeeded. The bad news is he has not received a paycheck since.

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“I’ve used up every bit of savings I ever had,” Rohrabacher said. “That’s part of the sacrifice you have to make to go into public office, unless you’re rich.”

But better times are ahead. The new congressman’s first paycheck is due Feb. 1, and, in a stroke of luck, President Reagan has recommended that the base pay for Congress be raised to $135,000 from $89,000 in February. This will take effect unless Congress votes it down.

And there are the famous congressional perks now available to Rohrabacher.

Among them are free membership in the congressional gym, street parking privileges any place in Washington (except in front of fire hydrants) and lots of “fact-finding” trips to pleasant places. And with the congressional franking privilege, his signature on the upper right-hand corner of an envelope has a monetary value: it is as good as a stamp.

On a less tangible level, there is the deference accorded to members of Congress anywhere they go in Washington, from restaurant waiters to taxi drivers to police officers, who will change a traffic signal on Independence Avenue to speed lawmakers’ dashes to the floor for votes and quorum calls.

There is also that thrill--surely it lasts longer than the first week--of being addressed--finally--as “Congressman Rohrabacher.”

“Seniority ... is important in Washington,” said Rep. Ron C. Packard (R-Carlsbad), whose district includes portions of Orange County. “You have to wait your time and wait your turn.” As one of his first official acts in Washington, Rohrabacher joined in a game played every two years in Washington: the office lottery.

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He drew numbers along with the other 30 congressional freshman members who were vying for the dregs of offices, ones so remote or cramped that they were rejected by the other nearly 400 members of the 101st Congress. His lottery number: 20.

From what was left after 19 freshmen chose their digs, Rohrabacher set up shop in the Longworth House Office Building.

“It may be a little disheveled at the moment,” Rohrabacher said, surveying his desk, which sat amid a tangle of unconnected telephone wires and unopened boxes of supplies, “but it’s no worse than my bedroom.”

He is, luckily, on the first floor; Longworth elevators are famous for long waits, and voting records depend on the alacrity with which members can get to the chamber after bells signal the 15-minute warning.

Still, Rohrabacher is not pleased. His view is paltry, looking up toward a huge urn-like fixture on C Street. And, he complained as he struggled to close his inner office door over a burp in the carpeting, his work space is too small.

Rohrabacher instructed his chief of staff, Richard T. Dykema, to put his name on the list for an office vacated by Rep. Bill Nichols (D-Alabama), who died after the November election. While Rohrabacher has virtually no hope of getting the office, which is in the coveted Rayburn House Office Building, the maneuver will enter him in the jockeying for other offices and should net him a bigger and better space in due time.

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In the meantime, even before his office was repainted, Rohrabacher had hung a couple of mementos on the nails left from the previous occupant’s pictures and plaques. The first to go up, of course, was a picture of Rohrabacher’s hero and former boss, Reagan.

To brighten his view, Rohrabacher had placed on the window sill two sculptures: a small Statue of Liberty and a ceramic of the late actor John Wayne, whom Rohrabacher knew through Orange County Republican circles. Wayne’s statue, Rohrabacher said, projects the “solid conservative image” he wants.

Besides, he said, Wayne taught him how to drink tequila: on the rocks with a twist of lime.

“Something I finally had to learn: you can’t do everything you want in Congress,” Rep. Lungren said. “You have to learn to be selective on issues you’re going to go 100% for.” Rohrabacher’s first act after being elected congressman was to slip into Burma without that country’s permission and deliver an impassioned speech to that strife-worn country’s “freedom fighters.”

It was apparent from Rohrabacher’s first week in office that he would be focusing on such matters.

Two days after he was sworn in, Rohrabacher delivered an ardent speech to the United Forum for Democracy and Human Rights in Burma. “People are fighting for freedom in the far corners of the planet and it is the tyrants and oppressors who are in retreat,” Rohrabacher said in his talk. “The people of Burma are part of this great historic advance of human freedom.”

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Later, in his office, Rohrabacher said he took a particular pleasure in being able to say things on his own that he could not get into the speeches he wrote for President Reagan. One of them: “and smug little tyrants with blood on their hands spouted off Marxist slogans to justify their oppression . . . “

“I’m very happy to be able to use phrases like that,” Rohrabacher said, obviously enjoying the new-found independence of being a member of Congress. “And I’m the final approver of the copy.”

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