Yesterday was not what would be called a great news day for veteran Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.). First there was an item in the Houston Chronicle about his views on the Chinese.

Seems Crane, at a gathering with some reporters on the Hill Wednesday, said the Chinese have been "retards" on trade matters. This just two days after Washington and Beijing signed a big trade deal that may lead to China's entry into the World Trade Organization next year.

"The Chinese will be more civilized as a result of going down that free trade path," said Crane, a former presidential contender who heads the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee. "They've been retards in one area in this century and that's been free trade."

Crane, said to be well-regarded by Chinese trade officials, is to lead a 70-member (and growing) congressional delegation to Seattle on Nov. 30 for more trade talks. An aide said Crane meant no offense and was really trying to refer to the Chinese as being slow on the uptake when it came to trade.

Crane later apologized. The Chinese, he said, "are the most brilliant people on the face of the Earth and always have been." Crane was, after all, a history professor.

Then the Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that businessman Lance Pressl, 42, a "fiscally conservative moderate" Democrat who might appeal to crossover voters, will run against the 69-year-old Crane, who has represented the staunchly Republican district since 1969.

"We are not worried about that guy," said the Crane aide.

Meanwhile, a WTO Founder Stews in Havana

Speaking of the Seattle conference, there are rumors that Cuban President-for-life Fidel Castro may try to rain on the trade parade. Word is Castro is miffed at the scant publicity given his Ibero-America Summit in Havana recently--save for the reports involving dissidents--and may take out his pique by trying to steal the spotlight from the Chinese and the World Trade Organization.

Cuba, it turns out, is a founding member of the WTO. There are concerns that his ploy would ratchet up pressure from farm state folks on Congress to ease the trade embargo on Cuba.

The State Department says it hasn't received a request from the maximum leader for a visa.

The Chased President

Neither rain nor sleet nor anything else will deter White House legislative affairs aide Lisa Kountoupes from keeping the government of the United States open. Kountoupes, who was heading to Turkey anyway, was entrusted with the continuing resolution passed by Congress for President Clinton to sign to avert a government shutdown yesterday.

She took off Wednesday night on a flight to Frankfurt and then Istanbul, but her plane was diverted, apparently because of bad weather, to Dusseldorf. She somehow made her way to Frankfurt in time to catch a Turkish airline flight and to arrive after 20 hours in time to deliver the document to Clinton for his signature.

And her luggage? Well. . . .

The White House is going to have to line up someone else, though, to get a new continuing resolution to the president to avert a government shutdown today.

E-mail, E-lections and E-thics

Some 70 congressional staffers got this e-mail Wednesday afternoon from Kimberly A. Alldredge, a young receptionist in the office of Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah).

"Please forgive me for sending this out on a day other than Friday but it is time sensitive," she wrote. "I am in the process of organizing a group of Hill staffers who would like to work on the George W. Bush Campaign. If you have 3 hours on a Saturday that you would like to do some volunteer work for the campaign, e-mail me at kimberly.alldredge@mail.house.gov.

"Think of how it will look on your resume! Thanks, Kimberly."

STOP! Think first of how it would look when the House ethics committee comes down on you like a ton of bricks. Many ethics rules for congressional aides are murky; others are not. One of the clearest is that Hill staffers can't participate in partisan activities on office time and can't use office equipment for partisan purposes.

Alldredge says "no one in the office" had prior knowledge of the e-mail, which she said went to a bunch of young pals, even some Democrats, who regularly trade information on job opportunities.

"We have given her a tongue-lashing" for the time being, Hansen legislative director Bill Johnson said yesterday, and more formal action might be taken when chief of staff Nancee W. Blockinger returns to the office Monday.

Most unfortunately, Hansen is the former chairman of the ethics committee and its longest-serving member. Upon learning of the e-mail Wednesday afternoon, "We self-reported it" to the ethics folks, Johnson said.

Barons' Power, Cut by a Third

Michael J. Prell, director of the division of research and statistics at the Federal Reserve Board since 1986 and one of the powerful trio of top aides known as "The Barons," plans to retire in June. Prell won't entertain offers until he leaves. "I'll just do my job diligently until then," he said.

Another baron, Edward M. "Ted" Truman, took a $50,000 pay cut last year to be assistant treasury secretary and was replaced by Fed economist Karen Johnson. No successor yet for Prell, but deputy division director David J. Stockton is being talked about.