On Phil Gramm's desk, a brass bullet paperweight fairly bristles at all who enter. A snake leers poisonously from a miniature flag, warning: "Don't Tread on Me."
"Some people say I'm abrasive," says the Republican junior senator from Texas. "I think I'm very sweet and lovable."
Even cuddly, perhaps?
"I'm willing," he replies. "Depends on who wants to cuddle."
Yesterday, as the 99th Congress returned from vacation to cuddle up with the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act signed last month by President Reagan, the main author of all this budgetary mayhem was grinning from cheek to cheek. Full of face and generous of frame, but pared down to his shirt sleeves to preside at the birth of the New Austerity, Gramm looks ready to "play a role," as he says, in the hacking and slashing to come.
"If I don't do it," he says of the billions in cuts, "it may not get done."
His voice is a low, manly twang -- like that of John Wayne playing the role of Davy Crockett in that Hollywood classic, "The Alamo" ("When Ah came to Texas, Ah was lookin' for somethin' but Ah didn't know what it wuz. It seemed like Ah spent all my life stompin' other men or in some cases gettin' stomped").
Gramm, whose outer office is graced by a grim-looking oil of Alamo hero William Barret Travis, came to Texas from his native Georgia in 1968 to teach economics at Texas A&M. He first won a seat in the House -- as a Democrat -- in 1978, became a Boll Weevil supporter of Ronald Reagan, was stripped of his major committee assignments by the vengeful Democratic leadership, resigned his seat to switch parties in 1983, was resoundingly returned to the House as a Republican in a special election that year and won his place in the Senate in 1984.
At 43, Phil Gramm has stomped and got stomped.
"I have strong views," he says, gazing hard through steel-rimmed glasses. "When you have strong views, you're gonna have strong friends and strong enemies. And I guess a hallmark of my political career, such as it has been, is that people have strong views about me -- they're either for me or against me. But they don't doubt where I stand."
Indeed, Gramm left few doubts last Sunday when, on NBC's "Meet the Press," during a discussion of whether his new law will weaken national security, he called a fellow guest, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), "one of the weakest" supporters of defense spending.
"I'm not going to allow my voting record to be misrepresented," Moynihan exploded at Gramm on the air. "You're one year in the Senate, fella. You don't do that to another senator."
Although Moynihan said yesterday through a spokesman that "half a dozen" Republican senators have since apologized to him for Gramm's attack, the attacker himself remains unapologetic.
"I've probably grown a little weary during this debate at being lectured by liberal Democrats about the impact of Gramm-Rudman on defense," he says with a withering little smile. "We all grow weary from time to time."
It's a tiring life being a senator.
He returned to Washington Saturday night after a jaunt to the Philippines -- where he conferred with President and Imelda Marcos -- and six days all over Texas, where the citizenry was wondering just what hath Gramm wrought, with a lot of jumping up and down and wringing of hands. As Gramm puts it, they "expressed concern."
The senator, by his account, did not mince words.
"I think there's a lot of people who've expressed concern and claimed they're being singled out," he says. "Various special-interest groups, you name it -- everyone from Disabled American Veterans to groups that benefit from special-education programs. Well, I tell them, 'Your program may be eliminated in the budget process, but the question you've got to ask yourself is, given a requirement to balance the budget, will the American people voluntarily fund your program? If you think they will, you're in good shape. If you think they won't, you're in deep trouble.' "
Not a pretty business.
"I feel like we're facing a difficult year," Gramm says. "It's one thing to draw a line through a budget item, it's another thing to eliminate it . . . I don't deceive myself. This is a tough problem. If this were an easy problem, somebody else would have dealt with it. And I guess I realize, as well as anyone, that enforcing painful decisions does not make you loved by your colleagues."
Nor by the voters, says Gramm -- who occasionally thinks how nice it might be to be president of the United States.
"I don't view the stuff I'm doing as promoting any political ambitions I might have in the future," he says. "Quite the contrary, I view these as things that may even limit my political future, and might even limit my ability to be reelected. I'm not unaware of the fact that every newspaper in Texas has run dozens of articles saying 'Gramm-Rudman Imperils AIDS Research' and 'Gramm-Rudman Denies Texas Benefits.' If you're on the battlefield, you're gonna take some bullets. So far, I haven't had that diamond bullet right between the eyes."
He rolled out of bed yesterday at 5:30 a.m., said goodbye to his wife, Wendy, on her own way to work as the regulatory czar -- "or maybe it should be 'czarina' " -- at the Office of Management and Budget, appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America," bolted through a plate of fruit at the studio, bolted through a pile of newspaper clippings at the office, fielded phone calls from colleagues, welcomed four new staffers, worked on his legislative agenda for the rest of the session and gave a speech to a group of major Republican contributors -- all before lunch.
He didn't expect to get home until late last night -- all in all, a leisurely day in the Senate, but hectic compared with his contemplative years as an economics professor at Texas A&M, otherwise known as Aggieland.
"It's harder here," says Gramm, whose favorite wristwatch, the one that plays the "Aggie War Hymn," is being repaired for a cracked crystal sustained during a tour of a B1 bomber components plant in Dallas. "Aggies are easier to teach than members of Congress. They're smarter and they're more interested in learning."
Gramm stays in close touch with the Aggie network, which includes "many of my former graduate students who came into the government with the Reagan administration," as well as OMB Director James Miller, an erstwhile colleague on the faculty at A&M.
Asked if he follows the Aggie football motto "Gig 'em!" -- referring to the disembowling of frogs and other unfortunate adversaries -- Gramm grins wide.
"That's right," he replies.