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U.S. Coin Redesign Close to Approval in Congress : Money: Bill of Rights themes would be used. Sen. Cranston pushed the legislation lobbied for by his frequent companion.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Congress moved close to ordering the redesign of every American coin after the Senate last week quietly approved legislation pushed by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) that calls for putting Bill of Rights themes on the penny, nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar.

The bill, which is expected to clear the House early next year, faces no strong Administration objection. Images of presidents would remain on one side of the coins.

For several years, coin redesign has been a crusade of Cranston’s frequent female companion, New York socialite Diane Wolf, 37. When she was a member of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, she persuaded the 77-year-old Cranston to take up the cause legislatively as they became close socially.

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Cranston has made the legislation his own obsession. Despite several tries, he failed to get it enacted in the final crush of congressional business last year. But in a largely unnoticed move last week as Congress pressed to adjourn for the year, Cranston won Senate approval of the measure by voice vote.

By mid-1993, the first redesigned coin--probably the quarter--would commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Within six years, that coin and all others would carry designs representing “freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, the right to due process of law and other appropriate themes,” according to the legislation.

Cranston attached the coin legislation to a House-passed bill that provides for medals for Persian Gulf War veterans as well as commemorative coins urgently sought by White House officials, Christopher Columbus enthusiasts and World Soccer Cup promoters.

California Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-Pico Rivera), chairman of a key House subcommittee, sought to rush the bill through the House in the final minutes before adjournment Nov. 27. But action was blocked by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who demanded the addition of commemorative coins to honor Benjamin Franklin and firefighters.

“I foresee House passage early next year,” Torres said Thursday.

The Administration, which previously opposed coin redesign, recently signaled that it is willing to go along with the legislation, although it sees little need for change.

“There is no indication, other than some in the coin-collecting community, that there is public dissatisfaction with our current coin designs,” Eugene H. Essner, acting director of the U.S. Mint, told Torres’ House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs subcommittee on consumer affairs and coinage on Nov. 6.

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“They are well-accepted, handsome and timeless designs,” he continued. “The Jefferson nickel design is as appropriate and fitting today as it was when first introduced in 1938.”

However, Essner, apparently resigned to the legislation, laid out an 18-month timetable for redesigning and minting new coins, starting with the quarter.

The biggest advocate for changing coin designs is Wolf, the daughter of a wealthy Texas oilman and an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan to the Commission of Fine Arts.

In 1987, she persuaded the commission to call for new designs, found sponsors for the legislation and then generated letter-writing campaigns on its behalf among thousands of coin collectors.

“The current designs are ordinary and boring,” she told the Associated Press two years ago.

Wolf met Cranston as she made the rounds of congressional offices, lobbying for her proposal. They began dating and remain close, a source said.

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