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Congress Votes for Reagan Airport

By Richard Tapscott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 1998; Page A01

After son Michael Reagan urged Congress to "win just one more for the Gipper," the House and Senate voted yesterday to put Ronald Reagan's name on Washington National Airport.

The votes were hurried so the measure would be ready before Reagan's 87th birthday tomorrow, and passage came in spite of strong opposition from Washington area political and business leaders. Local officials argued that Congress was interfering in control of the airport, which sits along the Potomac River in Arlington County.

The Senate voted 76 to 22 to change the name to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The House version of the bill, passed 240 to 186, did not include "Washington" in the title, but House leaders said they expect to make their bill conform to the Senate's and send it on to the president.

A White House spokesman said President Clinton will sign the legislation into law. Reagan would join former presidents George Bush and John F. Kennedy in having his name attached to a major U.S. airport.

As word of the congressional action spread yesterday, the renaming didn't go over well with everyone at the airport, which recently opened a new $450 million terminal.

"There's a big building being built for Reagan [in the District] and that should be sufficient," said Edie Jones, of Reston, a volunteer who works at the information booth in Terminal B. "He is a wonderful person, and he was a wonderful president. But this should remain Washington National Airport."

"It's neither Republican or Democratic. It's a nonpartisan airport. It shouldn't be one side or the other," said a Delta flight attendant, who asked that his name not be used because he didn't have authorization to comment from the airline.

For all the passion it engendered on Capitol Hill, the change will have scant practical effect immediately.

Officials said the designator "DCA," which identifies the airport on luggage tags, tickets and global tracking systems, would not have to change. Last April, Houston Intercontinental Airport officially changed its name to George Bush Intercontinental/Houston to honor the former president, but its code remained IAH.

As for on-board announcements when planes land, airlines can script their own messages, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants said. For many passengers, Jill Gallagher said, the old name is a sure indication of where they have landed. "Some foreign passengers might not even know who Ronald Reagan is," she said.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who voted to change the airport name, said the action is symbolic. "Most of my constituents won't stop calling it Washington National," he said.

Although the battle over the airport name became partisan, the fiercest opposition came from the Washington area. Alexandria and Arlington leaders urged Congress to leave the name alone, as did the Greater Washington Board of Trade and former Virginia governor A. Linwood Holton Jr., who is a Republican.

Opponents argued that Congress was intruding on a 50-year lease it had granted to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs National and Dulles International Airport and raised millions of dollars for the airports' new terminals.

Many members of Congress, particularly Republicans, said they viewed the airport as a "national treasure" that belongs to the whole country, not just people for whom it is the local airport.

"Millions of visitors to Washington each year will see Ronald Reagan's name -- a fitting symbol for the man who initiated the concept of a responsive, smaller government, as well as a worldwide movement of freedom," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Opponents pointed out that the new $800 million International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue will be dedicated in April in Reagan's honor and that the next Nimitz-class aircraft carrier will be christened the U.S.S. Reagan. They also said imposing a name change on reluctant local officials violated Reagan's penchant for turning power over to local governments.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), whose district includes the airport, complained about the example being set by a bill that removed the name of one president, George Washington, and replaced it with another president's name. In part, the move to keep "Washington" in the airport name was seen as an effort to mollify some critics.

But Moran said he still viewed the action as an "arrogant abuse of power" by majority Republicans, and he warned that it could become a bad precedent for future Congresses.

Moran also argued that businesses arrayed around the airport could be forced to spend thousands of dollars to change signs, printed promotional materials and other records because of the name change.

The House vote to honor Republican Reagan broke down largely along party lines, with only 18 Democrats supporting the bill and three Republicans opposing it.

Rep. Constance A. Morella was the only Maryland Republican to vote against the measure, joining the state's four Democratic House members.

All House Republicans from Virginia, including Davis and Frank R. Wolf, voted for the bill. Moran and the other Virginia Democrats voted against it.

Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) supported the bill. Sens. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) voted against it.

Staff writers Sylvia Moreno and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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