Robert K. Dornan, a Los Angeles talk show host, celebrated his winning of the Republican nomination to Congress three years ago by coming to Washington and "giving myself goose pimples" by visiting the federal buildings and monuments.
He was driving by the Washington Monument, he recalled the other day, when a news broadcast on the car radio reported -- and here the 12-year TV journalist-commentator lowered his voice to a proper resonance -- that "for the first time in history, an American city, our nation's capitol, had recorded more abortions than live births in a single year."
That statistic "festered in me" until last July, Dornan said. Then, as a second-term congressman from the 27th District of California, a string of beach towns along the rim of Los Angeles County, Dornan -- "the great right hope," some Hollywood folks have dubbed him -- introduced an amendment to the District of Columbia budget bill that forbids the spending of any public funds, including money raised from local taxes, to pay for abortions in the District.
In a floor speech, he said there were 10,000 live births and 13,000 abortions in the city last year, with 5,250 of the abortions financed by tax money.
The amendment was passed by the House by a vote of 217 to 210, but a similar proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms (R.N.C.) failed in the Senate, 55 to 34. When House-Senate conferees met last Tuesday to try to compromise on differences between versions of the city budget passed by the respective houses, they were able to agree on all but one item -- the Dornan amendment. House conferees refused to drop it, forcing the issue back to the House for a second vote, probably some time this week.
If the House refuses to back away from its earlier vote -- and it has shown little indication to vote against antiabortion amendments on roll call votes -- the city's $1.384 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 will be in limbo. Until the difference between the Senate and the House is resolved, the D. C. government will have to function via a continuing resolution, meaning spending is frozen at existing levels and no new programs can begin.
Even if the Dornan amendment eventually becomes law, its effect here would be uncertain. The directors of three private clinics that performed most of the city-financed abortions last year said last week that thousands of poor women would continue to obtain legal abortions here even if the District is barred from using city money to pay for them. The directors said that fees could be cut or that some abortions could be provided free of charge.
Last year, Dornan succeeded in restricting abortions in the military by tacking on a similar amendment to the Defense Department appropriations bill. Next, he says, he'll try the tactic on the Treasury Department appropriation, which finances health insurance that pays for abortions for members of Congress, their families and staffs.
"Abortion is not a good issue for me," Dornan said in an interview in his congressional office. He pulled a campaign strategy book from a pile of clutter that may be unequaled by any &member of the House, and read the advice of his professional political consultant, Arnold Steinberg: "Use voluntary military conscription. Avoid marijuana and abortion."
Dornan's fourth floor office in the Cannon House Office Building resembles a rich kid's playroom. It is crammed with dozens of models of airplanes, rockets and missiles (Dornan is a pilot and major defense contractors are located in his district) and eagles, whales, dolphins, peregrine falcons and other endangered species.
"The root word of conservative is 'conserve,'" Dornan said. He said he is "an eagle nut," and said his home in suburban Vienna is adorned with 68 facsimiles of them.
To find room for a visitor to sit, Dornan must rearrange the clutter, "moving from a chair posters, paintings, an M-105 carrying case and reams of documents. Wall decorations include autographed pictures from Hollywood conservatives, including his uncle, Jack Haley, shown as the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. There's schoolmate (Loyola University of Los Angeles) Johathan Winters, dressed as Buffalo Bill; Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Irene Dunn, a montage of Jimmy Cagney and of course, John Wayne. The late Duke wrote: "It's nice to know you are there [in Congress], Bob."
Dornan wants to build a legislative record that will remore what he believes was an unfair image as "a loose cannon" during his first term.
Along the way, he hopes to change the image that conservatives are "boring guys in three-piece suits who are just waiting to get out of here and go back to their banks and make money. Why can't we have fun, like the Democrats?"
There are days when red-haired, gum-chewing, bracelet wearing (he alternates between a POW-MIA bracelet and another bracelet for Soviet Jews) Dornan looks and acts like Andy Hardy in Washington.
Detractors accuse Dornan of showboating. But he said he doesn't have to seek publicity, noting that when his press secretary quit recently he didn't replace him because "the media comes to me."
"I hit the giant jackpot bonanza against this week," Dornan said, meaning that his floor speech against a pay raise for Congress was shown on the three network news programs one night. In fact, the antipay raise speech produced "a rare double giant jackpot bonanza" -- it also was replayed the next morning on the three network news programs.
His 12 years experience as a television personality (cowboy-businessman Gene Autry gave him his start) makes it "impossible for me to be boring."
On his talk show, Dornan said he "took on all comers," particularly liking to debate the leftist radicals of the '60s. Jane Fonda turned him down three times, he said, and so did Angela Davis. (Fonda called Dornan "a really vicious, low-grade person.") One of his favorite stunts occurred when "the liberals couldn't find anyone" to debate Max Rafferty, the conservative California superintendent of schools. Dornan found a guest host and went on in disguise as "Mark Dennis Adnof, student activist from Santa Barbara." He got the name from lawyer-author Mark Lane, actor Dennis ("Easy Rider") Hopper and Fonda spelled backwards.
But it's not fun-and-games with Dornan when the subject is abortion.
Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) called Dornan's amendment on the D. C. budget "reprehensible and unconstitutional."
"What I find reprehensive," responded Dornan "are the Teddy Kennedys, Jerry Browns, Patrick Leahys and Bob Drinans. They concede we have a soul, say they are personally opposed to abortion, but won't life a finger to stop the death toll."
Leahy, chairman of the Senate District Appropriations Committee, particularly upsets Dornan. "If any right-to-life group asked me, I'd go to Vermont and pass out literature at the Catholic churches (during Leahy's campaign for reelection next year.) I'd do the same against Father Drinan," a Jesuit priest and Massachusetts Democrat.
As for Stokes and D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, Dornan said, "They are out of synch with black America. This is not just a Catholic issue. Black Baptists are stronger on the abortion issue than Catholics. Abortion is going to be trouble for Fauntroy, and for the D.C. amendment. They should spend some time at the feet of Jesse Jackson. He'll tell them abortion is black genocide."
As far as the constitutionality of Congress telling the District how to spend its money, Dornan said, "We do it all the time. Congress won't even allow meters to be in taxicabs. And those local taxes they're talking about, the city has to come to Congress for the authority to levy them. And they're comingling them with federal funds."