The scene in the cloakroom of the House of Representatives might have been from the early 1960s, as opposing factions on the upcoming vote traded charges of "racism," "plantation mentality," and worse.
But this was last Thursday, and the opponents were all liberal Democrats, fighting over whether the House should, for the first time since Congress granted home rule to the District five years ago, veto an action of the City Council.
Leading the call for a veto was Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.). When an opponent of the veto called Stark a racist, another observer remarked, "If Pete Stark is a racist, we're all in trouble."
Opposing the veto was Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), who is Stark's best friend in the House and represents an adjoining congressional district in the Oakland area.
Dellums already had suffered the embarrassment of having the House District Committee, of which he is chairman, vote against him earlier in the day by recommending that a resolution of disapproval -- a veto -- be brought to the floor.
Caught in the middle, and uncharacteristically quiet, was Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.). The dilemma of Fauntroy, and others, was that the council action they were supporting -- prohibiting additional foreign embassy office buildings in certain residential neighborhoods -- was likely to upset Third World diplomats whose interests they normally champion.
And in yet another ironical twist, the beneficiaries of the council's ordinance would have included many white, conservative, longtime Washingtonians who had fought home rule every step along the way.
To the State Department, the issue was clear: The council action interfered with the nation's ability to conduct foreign policy.
"It is inconceivable," said State Department legal adviser Harold Burman, "that in any other major capital -- London, Paris, Tokyo -- that a local body would take an action in conflict with their national concern."
The department dispatched ambassadors W. Beverly Carter and Walter Cutler and protocol chief Albelardo Valdez, among others, to the Hill, to urge that Congress veto the bill. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) was among those visited.
"Tip agreed with them, and understood the problem," an aide to the speaker said. "But he wondered, how in the hell did this thing become a racial issue?"
An aide to one member of the Congressional Black Caucus said that after Dellums "took this on as a personal cause celebre -- though no one understands why -- and Fauntroy went along with it because the delegate never goes against the city, the others (blacks) played 'follow the leader.'"
Privately, one member of the black caucus said he thought the council's action was "horrendous" and another thought it was questionable legislation at best. But when the votes were counted, at least among the District Committee, the five black members voted, along with Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli D-Ky.) against the veto.
"The black caucus unwittingly helped the city's old conservative white Republicans, who don't want any diplomats other than those from Western European nations in their neighborhoods," the aide said.
Among those who contacted Fauntroy's office to urge him to uphold the council's action was the Federation of Civic Leagues, which said a congressional veto would be "an assault on the integrity of the Home Rule Act." A Fauntroy aide noted, "Those same people didn't raise a finger in behalf of home rule -- ever. And they don't even support full voting representation in Congress for District residents."
Stark got a call from the office of Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), saying lawyer Thomas G. (Tommy the Cork) Corcoran had called him, urging the Senate minority leader to oppose a veto.
Corcoran is one of the many influential Washingtonians who have been fighting the spread of chanceries (embassy offices) for years. Residents of Massachusetts Avenue NW, the Main Street of Embassy Row, testified before the council two years ago in behalf of restricted zoning, saying that because of the proliferation of new nations, privately owned mansions were disappearing from their quiet neighborhoods.
Former Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) wrote to the city a couple of years ago, opposing rezoning for a new chancery for Saudi Arabia, even though he was on a $50,000 retainer from the Saudi government.
And one resident admitted that "the truth of the matter is, it makes a difference which country you're talking about. Certain countries are more welcome than others. But these emerging nations are, shall we say, a problem."
Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), chairman of the House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee, supported the veto, but said he was among members who "fought like hell" trying to avoid the vote. "Everybody, Ron (Dellums), the mayor, we all thought it could be postponed" if the council would agree to try to negotiate a solution with the State Department.
Dellums and Fauntroy went to the District Building Thursday afternoon and tried to convince council members to at least postpone the effective day of the ordinance, to allow Congress to go home for the holidays without voting on the veto.
"But the council . . . just wouldn't negotiate," Wilson said.
"I hated to see that first veto," said Wilson, who predicted that the next veto "will not be so much on the merits. If the council now passes a very restrictive gun control ordinance, there will be 75 resolutions of disapproval dropped in the hopper."
But others take quite the opposite view.
"Each month that went by (since home rule was started) increased the inevitability of a veto," said Fauntroy aide Howard Lee. "This veto gets a high standard. The District Committee determined that the (council) action had an adverse impact on the federal interest. It will rebound to our benefit in the long run. It shows that the committee is even prepared to override the D.C. delegate and its chairman, if necessary."
Stark, who was depressed by his argument with his friend Dellums, especially because it took place on the day "when I lost my virginity and got my first major law enacted" (the $1.7 billion Metro funding act), also thinks vetoes will be rare.
An aide to Stark went further, saying, "It may never happen again. The council now must be vigilant, on guard."
Mayor Marion Barry also doesn't regard the veto as the beginning of a broadside attack on home rule. "I think it was fuzzy," Barry said of the argument that the action of the council went beyond the bounds of the charter authorized by Congress five years ago.
Several members of Congress who supported the veto thought the mayor should have vetoed the bill himself to avoid the congressional override.
The mayor said, "It was a very agonizing decision . . . but I signed it, realizing it would create an uproar. But that's the price you pay for being in political life."
A State Department official expressed a widely held view that Barry was "keeping a campaign promise made when he was a longshot" by supporting the council bill. "This wouldn't have happened if either Walter Washington or Sterling Tucker were mayor. They would have exercised more seasoned political judgment.
"I wasn't paying off anybody," was the mayor's response. "All neighborhoods ought to be protected against office buildings."
Democratic Councilman David Clarke, whose Ward 1 includes Embassy Row, where new chanceries would have been barred, said he doesn't think residents of an affluent area deserve any less protection than those who live in less prosperous parts of the city.
He said he and Councilwoman Polly Shackelton (D-Ward 3) were simply representing the interests of their constituents by supporting the chancery ban.
Clarke contends that the State Department ignored invitations to testify on the bill when it was being considered by the council's housing committee. The first response from State, Clarke said, came after the bill was passed when an official said, "My God, it got by us."
But one District Building official concedes that the chancery bill "flowed through so quietly it wasn't until it was sent to the mayor" that city officials heard the first rumblings of protest from State and Congress.
Burman, the State Department legal adviser, said the council was "treating the federal government like a cleaning establishment, and going along with citizens who didn't want another cleaning establishment in their neighborhood."
Burman noted that the federal government is the city's biggest employer and is responsible for making the District "a unique, special place . . . But here is the council kicking us in the teeth. It would like the Detroit City Council doing everything to hurt Chrysler. It doesn't make sense."