A Lesson in the House Rules of Etiquette

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) generally has been regarded as one of the more promising freshmen of the California delegation. Brash and brainy, the boyish 35-year-old legislator seemed to be laying the groundwork for a productive congressional career.

Then he got into a startling shouting match with Dan Rostenkowski, probably first on the list of Capitol Hill eminences not to aggravate. The subject of the argument was immigration, an area of particular interest to Becerra.

In 1958, the year Becerra was born, Rostenkowski, 65, was elected to the first of 18 terms in the House. For more than a decade, the quintessential Chicago pol has reigned as the supreme potentate of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, arguably the most powerful of the House duchies. Becerra's resume includes a tour as a California deputy attorney general and one term in the state Assembly.

Congressional sources, most of whom were unwilling to talk on the record about the incident, said the confrontation was almost breathtaking in its departure from House etiquette, in which powerful committee chairmen are generally accorded unquestioning obeisance. It took place at a weekly vote-counting session where the rules of seniority are particularly well observed.

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"Becerra is young and green and he'll learn," said a congressional source who knows and admires Becerra. "He is blessed with vim and vigor, but this is a very deferential process. People (like Rostenkowski) didn't get to those positions by brooking disloyalty. Rosty doesn't forget."

The heated exchange--over cutting welfare funds to legal immigrants--virtually rules out any chance of Becerra winning a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee. It also led to a surprise defeat for the House leadership and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on the House floor. And while some Latino supporters may admire him for standing up to Rostenkowski, his impertinence may trail him for some time.

"Nobody (on the caucus) will come out and say he did the wrong thing," said a source, "but he made a big error."

The episode occurred in mid-October and grew out of the seemingly unrelated issue of extending unemployment benefits to out-of-work Americans. The White House wanted the extension badly. The problem was how to foot the $1.1-billion cost.

Rostenkowski's committee agreed to seek partial funding for a three-month extension by delaying previously budgeted welfare payments to blind, elderly and disabled legal immigrants. Instead of qualifying for welfare after two years of U.S. residency, immigrants would have to wait five years.

The 18-member Hispanic Caucus quickly objected and persuaded the House leadership to cut back the benefits extension by a month to preserve the immigrants' welfare funds.

Rostenkowski, who sources say had agreed not to fight the maneuver, had a dramatic change of heart after Becerra took him to task in a weekly Democratic whips meeting.

"I had raised my hand," recalls Becerra, "I had the floor. I wanted to thank the Speaker for addressing our concerns. Rostenkowski indicated he was anxious to get the bill (moving) and was concerned about the last-minute change. I still had the floor and said it was unfair to deny welfare benefits to one particular group. At one point I might have said it was inhumane. . . . I still had the floor and as a freshman I was expected to shut up, but I thought it was an important issue and I didn't stop talking. We were both talking and he has a loud voice."

Others described the exchange less neutrally, saying Becerra seemed to prod the irascible chairman as if "poking a horse with a stick."

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Rostenkowski was livid. He took to the House floor, delivered a blustery speech opposing the Hispanic Caucus compromise as harmful to 300,000 jobless Americans. The caucus plan, on a procedural vote, went down in flames, 274 to 149.

The next day, the Hispanic Caucus joined the rest of the House in overwhelmingly approving Rostenkowski's original plan. It also passed the Senate and was signed into law Nov. 24.

In hindsight, Becerra says he would do the same thing, although he concedes it may come back to haunt him--Rostenkowski or no Rostenkowski.

The chairman, who was in Geneva for world trade talks and unavailable for comment, faces a troubling Justice Department investigation into more than a decade of his financial dealings.

"I told the chairman later that I wasn't grandstanding, and he said the whole issue is in the past," says Becerra.

"It's hard to gauge what the political fallout will be," Becerra says. "It goes beyond the chairman. There were others in the room that may remember."

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