WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON is reeling over the news that Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, one of the most powerful members of Congress, may be set to take a fall.
The burly Chicago ward-heeler has been implicated in a scandal involving embezzlement of funds from the House Post Office. If indicted, he would have to step down as chairman of the House's Ways and Means Committee.
This came as a blow to the White House and to Congress's Democratic leadership, which together have their first chance in 12 years to show Democrats can govern. Mr. Rostenkowski, touted by colleagues as a master of the political process, is the top House negotiator with the Senate in the tough deficit-reduction conference in progress. And he is central to the administration's health-care and welfare reforms.
Rostenkowski's troubles also further tarnish the image of Congress, which in the past year has sought to eliminate patronage and is working on reforms to make it more effective in its primary function, lawmaking.
Around Washington, Democrats and some Republicans are shaking their heads in disbelief that one so powerful and with access to much bigger money than he allegedly took could get wrapped up in such a scheme.
"Everybody's going around [on Capitol Hill] with a stiff upper lip, but I can tell you a lot of people are really aching over this," says an aide to a top House Democrat.
"Well, I just believe the charges against Danny don't make any sense," Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen a Monitor breakfast Tuesday.
Rostenkowski's name had surfaced last year in connection with charges of embezzlement from the House Post Office, but the link grew much stronger Monday with the court testimony of former House Postmaster Robert Rota. In a plea bargain, Mr. Rota admitted to exchanging postage-stamp vouchers for cash to several members of Congress.
Two members cited in court papers were identified only as Congressman A and Congressman B, but comparisons of postal records submitted by Rostenkowski identify him as Congressman A, who Rota says received $21,300 between 1987 and 1991. The other congressman is identified as former Rep. Joe Kolter (D) of Pennsylvania. A Rostenkowski spokesman said the congressman has "no comment."
A senior White House official says the situation is not affecting the House-Senate budget conference, a delicate operation in which virtually every Democratic vote is essential.
"We are proceeding apace; nothing's changed," says the official, who is involved in the conference. But he acknowledges that the White House has had a discussion with Rep. Sam Gibbons (D) of Florida, who would take over as chairman of Ways and Means. And, the official says, life without "Rosty" would make it more difficult to get health care reform through Congress.
Investigations toward a possible indictment will reportedly take several weeks, and the budget conference is expected to finish by early August.
Representative Gibbons says Rostenkowski "seemed himself" in conference Tuesday. "He handles pressure well," he said.
The low-key Gibbons would find filling Rostenkowski's shoes a tall order. "I'm certainly interested in being chairman, though I didn't want it to happen under these circumstances," he said. When asked about his style, he said: "I've been a subcommittee chairman for years, and I try to build consensus. I try to do what's correct."
Gibbons "just doesn't have the sheer force of personality" that Rostenkowski has, says the Democratic leadership aide. "When you say `the chairman,' that means only one person."
In congressional offices, members and aides are trying to understand a situation that, on the surface, doesn't make sense. Last year, Rostenkowski could have retired from Congress and legally kept his $1 million campaign war chest. Why, Washington is asking, would he take the time and trouble just to take in a spare $1,000 here and there?
Some Republicans, however, seem to be taking the news with a partisan glee, and are working to make sure the public knows the people in trouble are from the Democratic Party, which has run Congress for 40 years. "Just as in Japan, this is about corrupt one-party rule for four decades," said Rep. Newt Gingrich, House Republican Whip, in a fax issued just after Rota's plea.