No one around Capitol Hill was very surprised that the House would vote, as it did two weeks ago, to strike a plaque honoring Washington attorney Ralph E. Becker. It is not uncommon for Congress to honor citizens by striking plaques or naming buildings for them.
But there is an unusual angle to this story: the House voted to put Becker's plaque in the grand foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which is dedicated by policy of its own board exclusively to the memory of the slain president.
Now Becker has been quietly touching base with assorted senators to get his plaque legislation adopted.
If the legislation is passed, Becker would become the third American honored by name at the Kennedy Center. First is JFK. Then comes former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for whom one of the center's theaters is named.
Becker, 73, was a trustee of the center and the paid general counsel of its board for some years. A long-time patron of the arts in Washington, he was one of the promoters of the idea of a cultural center in the late 1950s. The center was named for Kennedy in 1964.
The House-passed bill also would honor a fourth American -- board chairman and theatrical producer Roger L. Stevens -- with a plaque in the grand foyer. Stevens apparently is embarrassed by the gesture, and according to congressional sources has informed the Senate privately that he does not wish to be memorialized.
But Becker and senatorial friends, according to various sources on the Hill, have been making contacts in recent days to urge Senate passage of the legislation.
As is often the way in the Senate, the issue has become ultrasensitive.
Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which decides what will be named for whom, have put "holds" on the House bill to prevent its sliding to passage unnoticed in the Senate.
But other senators are pushing for adoption of the bill, including John W. Warner (r-Va.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Charles Percy (R-Ill.), who is vice chairman of the Kennedy Center board.
Aides to Percy could shed no light on the matter, but other sources said the Illinois senator, with Becker alongside, importuned other senators at a national prayer breakfast, asking their help on the bill.
Becker vigorously denied that he had sought the honor in the House and denied that he had "lobbied" the Senate as such, although he conceded that he had talked to "quite a few" senators who had approached him.
"If you have friends, they do things for you," he said. "I did not seek this and I am not advocating the legislation. If Congress decides to do something, there shouldn't be any flak.I'll guarantee you, Ralph Becker does not lobby. But that doesn't mean people on the Hill are not interested in honoring me."
Becker's largely Republican support on the Hill coincides with his long record of prominence in GOP circles. He resigned as general counsel to the Kennedy Center Board in 1976 when then president Gerald B. Ford appointed him to a four-month tour as U.S. ambassador to Honduras.
Among Becker's other accomplishments was his founding in 1964 of the Iran-American Society, ostensibly a cultural exchange group, a few days before the shah of Iran made a celebrated visit to the United States. Some years later, after an audience with the shah, Becker hailed him as "one of the great leaders of the world."
The tribute to Becker was proposed formally by another Republican, Rep. William H. Harshs of Ohio. He offered the plaque idea as a floor amendment to a pending bill last Jan. 24.
Becker confirmed that he had sent Harsha his biography, along with a note of thanks for the congressman's help, before the amendment was introduced. But he said he did not know specifically what Harsha was planning to do.
Harsha said it was his idea to honor Becker, and the foyer seemed a good place to do so. "If the board has a problem with that, it is not a problem," Harsha said yesterday, "because we can work something out. I don't want to disturb the Kennedy memorial aspect of it at all."
The Harsha amendment designated Becker as an honorary trustee of the center and directed the secretary of the interior to put up the plaque honoring Becker "for distinguished service."
For the sake of political balance, Democrats on the House Public Works Committee decided to add a second part to Harsha's amendment, authorizing the Stevens plaque.
Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.) lauded producer Stevens, a Democrat, as "an American phenomenon . . . one of the most successful fundraisers in politics and the arts."
Without debate or discussion, the amendment passed the House by voice vote and the legislation was sent to the Senate for final action.
The House vote caught the Kennedy Center board and Interior's National Park Service, which oversees the Kennedy memorial, by surprise. Neither was very pleased.
Said an official of the center: "It has always been the board's policy that no one will be honored by name here. The grand foyer was dedicated to John F. Kennedy and no one else is honored there."