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Rep. LaHood, Keeping the House Clean

LaHood Illinois Republican Ray LaHood is slated to preside over the House impeachment debate. (Reuters)

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  • By Frank Ahrens
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page D01

    Who knows -- maybe Rep. Ray LaHood will turn out to be a cannibal. But today, as the House begins its impeachment debate, the civil man from Illinois may be the best person the Republicans have left.

    Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) couldn't chair today's proceedings because he's shivering in the ideological gulag. Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-La.) treated the whole affair like a live electric eel to begin with. Now, on the eve of a debate spurred by marital infidelity, he's confessed to "straying" from his marriage.

    Who knows what confessions we'd hear if the debate started on Saturday?

    LaHood's worst sin may be a blind allegience to the Chicago Bulls and parliamentary procedure. Even before yesterday's revelations from Livingston, LaHood's collegues, Republican and Democrat alike, felt the 53-year-old resident of Peoria was a natural choice to lead the contentious discussion. Now, LaHood looks better with each passing day.

    "No one is going to try any shenanigans with Ray in the chair," says Rep. Sherwood "Sherry" Boehlert (R-N.Y.), LaHood's landlord in Shirlington for two years. "That doesn't mean they're not going to try to prevail in their arguments, but they're not going to try any tricky parliamentary moves with him in the chair."

    Or, as Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) says: "When those dark eyes glare out over the podium and announce that 'The House will be in order,' it's not long before the House is in order."

    LaHood is noted for his civility -- he spent 11 years as an aide to former Illinois congressman Robert Michel, one of the House's legendary nice guys. LaHood was so offended by the indecorous behavior in the confrontational 104th Congress -- shoving, tie-pulling -- that he, along with Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), organized a 1997 retreat to Hershey, Pa., specifically to encourage House members to play nice. That philosophy, Skaggs says, makes LaHood a good choice for a tough day of debate.

    "This is not an occasion when any presiding officer can turn a sour occasion into a sweet one," Skaggs says. "At best, he can keep a sour occasion from becoming a calamity for the institution."

    LaHood is a lifelong Peorian -- his paternal grandparents were the first Lebanese immigrants to the town in 1895. Missi Tessier, a friend, calls LaHood a "consummate listener." LaHood says he inherits that trait from his father, who ran a restaurant and tended bar. Or it could have come from a stint as a junior high social studies teacher.

    Friends describe him as easygoing yet insistent -- Boehlert, a New York Knicks fan, says LaHood finally persuaded him that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, after watching many Bulls games over beers. (LaHood plays basketball in the House gym, is a distance runner and plays a 20-handicap golf game.) Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), LaHood's next-door neighbor in the Cannon House Office Building, is perhaps his best friend in the House; their staffs play on a combined softball team -- the Buffalo LaHoodlums. Recently, Quinn borrowed LaHood's high-mileage Lincoln Continental and scratched it up good. LaHood laughed off the damage.

    LaHood lives in a Foggy Bottom apartment across from the Watergate, although he's never seen famous former neighbor Monica Lewinsky. He heads for the airport as soon as the gavel drops on Fridays or at the end of sessions, eager to get back to his district and his wife, Kathleen, who is a vice president of a Peoria bank.

    LaHood has moved from ideological outlander upon his 1994 House election to chief referee in today's discussions. It has been a circular journey, tied up in irony. LaHood learned the craft of government at the knee of the genteel Michel, who represented LaHood's central Illinois district for 39 years. Michel rose to party leader but never enjoyed a GOP majority in the House. Because of that, he became a conciliator, a dealmaker, getting along amicably with Democratic speakers Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright.

    When Team Gingrich stormed Congress in 1994, Michel and those like him were cast as appeasers, moral equivalents of Neville Chamberlain. Traitors to the cause.

    LaHood, one of only three Republicans who refused to sign Gingrich's "Contract With America" (LaHood disagreed with the timing of tax cuts), found himself on the fringes of his own party.

    "They looked at me as an institutional, Washington-type person," LaHood says. "Many of them ran against Congress, ran against the institution. They looked at me as part of the old team, and maybe not part of the new team." LaHood's mutiny probably kept him from inheriting Michel's seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

    But now, with Gingrich's head on a lance, LaHood is at center stage.

    "I talked to Bob Livingston about it -- he doesn't want to start out his speakership with the most controversial thing in the House this century," LaHood says, who has declined to say how he'll vote on impeachment. "Poking the president in the eye is not the first thing he wants to do."

    LaHood has overseen several contentious House debates -- such as the partial-birth abortion row -- and has a knack, members say, for running a floor discussion. And he's someone who doesn't mind poking the president in the eye a little bit himself: He sponsored a House resolution that asks Clinton to reimburse the government $4.4 million -- the estimated cost of the independent counsel's investigation of the Monica Lewinsky affair. He sponsored the resolution, he says, because he was "irritated" at the president. Legislatively, it went nowhere.

    Watch for LaHood to spend a lot of time on his feet today, says Billy Pitts, a lobbyist for Disney/ABC and a former colleague in Michel's office. That way, LaHood can watch the activity on the floor as well as be a totemic figure of the House's authority -- standing, symbolically, above the fray.

    Though LaHood is often described as a moderate Republican, that's something of a misnomer, Tessier says. She now works in a public affairs firm but used to be Michel's press secretary.

    "Ray considers himself a real conservative," she says. "I think people who are conservative with temperate personalities are sometimes branded as moderates, but that has more to do with their personality."

    Indeed, LaHood receives high ratings from conservative groups and low ratings from liberal groups. Most of his campaign contributions come from business and industry, with heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc. -- the company in the company town of Peoria -- as the top donor in his 1998 reelection. LaHood supports Caterpillar "90 percent" of the time, he says, because the company drives Peoria's economy. In Congress, he has voted solidly Republican, favoring tort reform, a constitutional amendment prohibiting desecration of the flag, deregulation of the telecommunications industry and overriding the partial-birth abortion veto.

    Even Democrats in his home state like LaHood -- he ran unopposed this year. They found it pointless to field an opponent partially because of LaHood's productive dialogue with his district's labor unions, says Illinois state Sen. George Shadid, a Democrat who's known LaHood for 40 years.

    LaHood's Peoria is a city of 113,000, perched atop a row of bluffs overlooking the Illinois River. In lore, it is a typical American city, quintessentially Midwestern, though it no longer looks much like the rest of America -- it is 93 percent white, for instance. It is GOP territory, but not overwhelmingly -- LaHood's 14-county district voted a slight majority for Clinton in 1992 and for Robert Dole in 1996.

    And, even before he's asked, LaHood knows how to answer the shopworn question: In the past two months, he says, his district offices have received more than 2,000 phone calls -- 80 percent of which favor impeachment. Suggesting, perhaps, that impeachment will play in Peoria.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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