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Feinstein Ouster From Senate Panel Hurts State’s Clout : Congress: With Republican reshuffling, California now has no representation on Appropriations or Finance committees.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein came to Washington two years ago and landed a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, her lack of seniority meant she had to sit out of range of television cameras and wait in line behind every other Democrat before she could ask a question.

Minor inconveniences, particularly in light of the circumstances today: She’s not even in the room.

As a Democrat, Feinstein, the first Californian in a quarter century to win a seat on the panel that controls the purse strings of Congress, was dropped when the Republicans seized control and made good on their promise to reduce the committee network.

Her elimination leaves California without representation on the Senate panels that tax and spend--Finance and Appropriations--a considerable loss of clout for a state whose economic needs are deep and wide.

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“It really puts us again in a position where we don’t have anyone from our state serving on the most important committees. We have a hard time representing the extremely diverse issues of California,” said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who worked diligently to help Feinstein land the spot when she came to the Senate in 1992.

On the surface, it appears to be a simple case of mathematics. Feinstein was the junior member on a shrinking panel in a town where seniority is the 11th Commandment. But Washington sources say her departure can be traced to a run-in she had early on with the imperious Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), for years the grand master of the Appropriations Committee, whom Feinstein had challenged when she stood up for the line item veto that he vehemently opposes.

Byrd essentially punished Feinstein by arbitrarily assigning her the least seniority, even though she had served two months longer than Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). As a result, Murray made the cut and remains on the panel, with Feinstein in the wings should a slot open up.

“I’m very disappointed because I had hoped to be able to continue the fight for California. . . . But I intend to continue to fight for California,” said Feinstein, who touted her coveted Appropriations assignment throughout the fall campaign. She was assigned instead to the Foreign Relations Committee and maintained her seat on the Judiciary Committee.

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Feinstein’s aides would not discuss whether the rift with Byrd was her undoing, calling it a coup for her to have served on the panel at all, considering the two senators’ difference of opinion.

But other Washington observers said that what appeared to be a slap on the wrist in the short term turned out to be highly punitive in the end, and that were it not for Byrd, Feinstein would be on the panel today.

“Sen. Byrd has a burr under his saddle when it comes to California,” said Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee, which works hand in hand with its Senate counterpart.

Packard said the loss of Feinstein will be balanced by gains made on the House Appropriations Committee, where seven Californians now serve, the largest delegation in memory. He said the state would also ultimately benefit from the government shrinkage that cost Feinstein the job.

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“Dianne and I had a good relationship,” Packard said. “But I firmly believe when we get government off the back of the states and the individual, that will have a much more beneficial effect.”

Meanwhile, California’s other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, hung onto her committee assignments, even gaining seniority on the Banking Committee, which is considering issues related to Orange County’s bankruptcy. Her other posts include the Budget Committee and Environment and Public Works. She failed to win a seat on the Finance Committee, which might have helped offset Feinstein’s removal.

Boxer said Feinstein’s reassignment is a blow to California but that plenty of other power players, including President Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.)--all aspirants to the presidency for ’96--are bound to be watching out for a state whose electoral votes make it worth courting.

“I was heartbroken” about Feinstein’s removal, Boxer said, “but we’ve got President Clinton looking out for us and Dole and Gramm. We still have a good chance.”

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