When they recall horse-trades of the 96th Congress, this one will be memorable: a $92 million federal building in exchange for a plaque honoring a lawyer.
Rep. William H. Harsha (R-Ohio) wants the plaque for Ralph E. Becker, a Washington lawyer. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) thinks the plaque is the wrong idea for the wrong person in the wrong place.
After Harsha in January persuaded the House to pass his amendment to create a plaque for Becker, Moynihan used senatorial prerogative to keep the bill from Senate consideration.
That would kill the legislation and prevent placement of the plaque here in the grand foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, an area dedicated to the memory of the late president.
But there is more than one way to end a stalemate, as Harsha demonstrated this week in the House Public Works Committee, where he is the ranking Republican.
The committee was due to take up a proposal to build a $92 million facility for the Social Security Administration in Jamaica, in the New York City Borough of Queens.
It just happens that Moynihan has bird-dogged that project for years, avidly pushing for its approval. If he could get it past the House, the Senate would be no problem: he oversees building matters for the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.
When Harsha sent word across Capitol Hill that he might have second thoughts about the New York building, Ye Olde Legislative Trading Co. promptly opened for business.
The word apparently was heard first by Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.), who has been working for the project longer than Moynihan has been a senator. According to reports, he called his senator.
And then, as Hill sources reconstruct it, Moynihan contacted the congressman from Ohio. Moynihan agreed to remove his objection to the bill for Becker's plaque. The prospects for House approval of the building took a quantum jump forward.
A House Public Works Committee meeting, set for Wednesday but apparently blocked at Harsha's insistence, has been rescheduled for next week. The New York building is on the agenda.
Although trades like this are congressional commonplace, nobody wants to admit it.
Aides to the committees and the legislators reacted to inquiries with pleas for anonymity, or with profound shock and hurt.
"If we're being held captive, I don't know it," said an Addabbo assistant.
"Where do you get your facts?" demanded a Harsha aide.
A spokesman for Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), who as buildings subcommittee chairman ought to know, said the congressman was unable to talk because of bronchitis.
Action around the board of trade left one U.S. senator, Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), holding a very large and uncomfortable bag.
Like Moynihan, Domenici had put a "hold" on the bill. Like Moynihan, he said he found it "tasteless" that Becker, a Republican, former board member and paid general counsel at the Kennedy Center, had been personally pressing for passage of the bill.
The bill also has drawn frowns at the center, whose board had decreed the grand foyer to be a memorial solely for John F. Kennedy.In a bow to bipartisanship, Harsha's bill also would strike a plaque for board chairman Roger L. Stevens, a Democrat. Stevens has told the Senate to count him out -- he doesn't want the honor.
"If all this has occurred," Domenici said yesterday, "I don't know if I'll continue my hold against the bill. In any event, I certainly won't vote for it if it comes up."