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Humbler Howard Berman Goes Back to Washington

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Howard L. Berman, who has spent 12 years on Capitol Hill, picked up his congressman’s credentials Wednesday, the young staffer fumbling through the stack of passes didn’t seem too sure of the name.

“Berman,” Berman repeated.

The opening of the 104th Congress was a humbling day for the legions of Democrats returning Wednesday to a place they once ruled. It was the sort of day you stuck your hands in your pockets, kept your eyes focused down and strode purposefully down the hall--past Republican open houses, Republican entourages, Republicans whose names everyone seemed eager to learn.

“Who are these people?” Berman wondered aloud, passing another group of new faces.

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Hours before he was to be sworn in for his seventh term, the Panorama City Democrat was taking care of administrative chores. He had to pick up his congressional voting card, which allows him to cast ballots in the House of Representatives’ automatic voting machine; his congressional license plate, which gives him prime parking spots on the Hill, and his congressional ID, essential for those occasions when he is just another guy in a gray suit.

Passing Republican hoopla everywhere he went, Berman was a distracted man as he navigated the underground tunnels that connect the Rayburn Office Building to the Capitol.

With Congress already in session, his subcommittee assignments were still up in the air. Just minutes earlier, Berman had learned that the more senior Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) had changed his mind and decided to take a seat on the subcommittee overseeing the State Department, leaving a displeased Berman with the subcommittee dealing with Asian affairs.

But Berman’s mind was also focused on his party and the stunning blow it took in November.

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“What I’ll be doing over the next two years,” he said amid stacks of boxes in his new office, “is stepping back and examining a lot of things we’ve been standing for. All of us in the Democratic Party have some soul-searching to do.”

But such quiet reflection was difficult Wednesday amid all the celebrating.

Across the hall from Berman’s office, a crowd of smartly dressed revelers gathered with drinks in hand awaiting a chance to meet Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.), the new chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee. A few offices down, a full-fledged party was unfolding in the offices of Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.).

During the day, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers would perform for congressional children and the media would swarm en mass over the new kings and queens of the Hill. Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), who organized much of the GOP celebration, would wish the nation good morning with his family on “Good Morning America.”

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But the atmosphere in Berman’s office, like the congressman himself, was subdued.

Staffers hung pictures on the wall and unloaded cardboard boxes, preparing for a session in which they will in all likelihood not write any laws. There were no cookies, no carrots, no punch.

“There is still something (exciting) about being sworn in as a congressman, but it’s not the same when you’ve done it six times,” Berman said. “The ceremony is not what I like about this job.”

It is the nitty-gritty of policy that excites this former labor lawyer--the intricacies of legislation ranging from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the multibillion-dollar federal earthquake relief bill. In that vein, he said he will remain focused on his Los Angeles agenda this year: economic development for the region, defense conversion to help ailing aerospace firms and “effective but not draconian” immigration reform.

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Berman did stop by one reception in the mid afternoon for freshman Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). But his visit was only long enough to wish her well and grab a makeshift lunch of two mini-sandwiches and a handful of nuts.

On the way back to the office, he realized that voting on a change to the House rules had begun. A frantic Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) said there were two minutes to go.

The gloom of the day suddenly dissipated and Berman sprang into action, sprinting across the underground parking garage to the subway that shuttles members to the Capitol.

“I can’t miss the first vote,” he said with newfound urgency in his voice, eager to avoid an awful opening day omen.

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As it turned out, Lazio had overreacted. There were six minutes to spare, plenty of time for Berman to jam into the members-only elevator with eight others, enter the chambers and use his new voting card.

But just like every other part of this day, things were different. Republicans were in control of the Speaker’s chair and their proposal allowed no amendments by the Democrats.

Berman, in an action he may carry out more and more this session, voted no.


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