Rep. Silvio O. Conte, the dean of the Massachusetts delegation to the House of Representatives and one of Congress's most beloved and respected members, died last night at the National Institutes of Health. He was 69.
He died two days after undergoing the second operation for a blood clot on the brain. Doctors believe the cerebral bleeding stemmed from the progression of prostate cancer for which he had surgery in 1987, his office said in a statement. His death was attributed to "extensive intracerebral bleeding," Conte's office quoted doctors as saying.
A liberal Republican who was often at odds with a majority of his GOP colleagues and his party's presidents, Conte was the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
A native of Pittsfield, Mass., Conte was elected to the House in 1958 after serving for eight years in the Massachusetts state Senate.
Conte was an enormously popular figure in the House, where his stentorian denunciations of pork-barrel projects and wasteful government spending were a regular feature of floor debate. An aficionado of the flamboyant gesture, Conte in 1983 donned a pig's snout and ears on the House floor to denounce colleagues he said "have their noses right in the trough and they're slurping it up for their districts at the expense of all the taxpayers." Conte's reputation as an opponent of pork-barrel projects did not, however, prevent him from bringing home the bacon to western Massachusetts.
In recent years, suffering from the effects of prostate cancer, Conte frequently traveled the halls of Congress in an electric cart. With the flags of his country, his state and the nation of Israel waving from the handlebars, Conte would honk his way through throngs of tourists.
In an era when the ranks of House Republicans are increasingly dominated by somewhat humorless conservatives who seem more interested in confrontation with Democrats than in influencing legislation, Conte was something of a throwback.
As the only Republican representative from what is arguably the nation's most liberal state, Conte frequently voted with the Democratic majority that has controlled the House for more than 35 years.
Just last month, for example, he was one of only three Republicans who voted to deny President Bush the authority to use force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Four days later, as Congress voted to support the troops in the Persian Gulf War, Conte said, "At a time like this, you've got to rally behind your troops. Anything else would be dishonorable."
Conte could make or break an appropriations bill. In the early 1980s he did just that to President Ronald Reagan.
The congressman worked to include some Caribbean aid that Reagan wanted in an appropriations bill, but when Reagan vetoed the measure anyway, Conte led the override battle and got 80 Republicans to vote with him.
"I hope he learns a lesson," Conte said of Reagan. "You just don't have 435 robots here in Congress that are going to vote in lock step."
He was a champion of spending on human services and once referred to Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, as "the young slasher." He was capable of name-calling at other levels too. He referred to the Senate as "a bunch of fat cats up there raking in the bucks" and once called senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) "a cheap, irresponsible demagogue."
Conte was know for his rhymes, and last October, as Congress debated the budget and the government dismayed tourists by shutting down, he offered verse:
"We're frightened by the interest groups.
"We act like silly nincompoops.
"We can't make cuts that cause some sting,
"We cannot even do a thing.
"And now we have run out of time.
"And that, dear friends, is our own crime.
"The government -- it has shut down,
"And we're the only game in town.
"Let's work to get this budget through,
"And get these tourists to the zoo."
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) once wore a waiter's outfit and serenaded him at a testimonial dinner.
In 17 elections from Massachusetts' 1st District, Conte was unopposed seven times. His first victory was over James MacGregor Burns, the biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, after Conte promised to bring federal grants and projects to the district.
Born Nov. 9, 1921, he grew up in Pittsfield's Italian-American neighborhood, served as a Seabee in the Pacific Theater during World War II and earned a law degree from Boston College.
He is survived by his wife, Corinne, and four children.