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Partisan Rancor Flares in Debate To Rename National Airport

By Alan K. Ota, CQ Staff Writer

Congress put aside weighty matters of state -- the budget, Iraq, the Asian financial crisis -- to name the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Feb. 5, a day before the former president's 87th birthday.

Democrats and Republicans wished Reagan the best, but only after a bruising battle over the airport. The House cleared the bill by voice vote Feb. 5. President Clinton signed the measure on Reagan's birthday, saying, "He is in our thoughts and prayers."

The bipartisan spirit of Clinton's birthday greetings followed long debate in which lawmakers pondered the question: To name or not to name?

The Senate passed the airport bill (S1575) by a vote of 76-22 on Feb. 4. The House approved another version (HR2625) the same day, 240-186, and moved quickly to adopt the Senate's slightly different version Feb. 5.

For many Republicans, the campaign provided a chance to pay homage one more time to Reagan, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said renaming the airport was an appropriate tribute for the man who gave America "freedom from fear, from insecurity, and finally from the emotional, physical and financial costs of the Cold War."

As sweet as the victory was for Republicans, it was a bitter loss for some Democrats who tried to block the bill. They saw the proposal as a blatant political act by Republicans.

"This was clearly part of a conservative ideological agenda. It was driven by conservative talk show hosts. The goal was to turn the airport into a political billboard to greet visitors to Washington," said Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., who led the opposition.

One More for "The Gipper"

The Reagan Legacy Project of the Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group, launched the airport campaign last year as part of a wider effort to put his name on buildings and his face on Mount Rushmore.

Michael Reagan, the former president's son, joined the final push at a news conference with Gingrich on Feb. 4, urging Congress to "win just one more for the Gipper."

Some Democrats offered to name practically anything else for Reagan except that airport, suggesting the Pentagon or Dulles International Airport. Others suggested Reagan had been honored enough with a new office building and a new Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, both of which carry his name.

Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi cleared the way for a vote by agreeing to consider a bill to reform the Internal Revenue Service (HR2676) by March 30.

In floor debate in both chambers, Democrats criticized the proposal for going against the wishes of local officials and ending the identification of the airport with the nation's first president, who lived nearby at Mount Vernon. They even questioned the $60,000 cost of new signs, to which Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., replied by reading from a letter from a C-SPAN viewer who offered to foot the bill.

Democrats also raised the issue of names for other buildings. In the Senate, Harry Reid, D-Nev., proposed an amendment to remove J. Edgar Hoover's name from the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"J. Edgar Hoover stands for what is bad about this country. This small man violated the rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, famous and not so famous," Reid said.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, opposed the amendment, saying Hoover had many accomplishments. "I have to say there is a raft of FBI agents who would be very offended by this," he said. The Senate voted 62-36 to table (kill) the amendment.

In the House, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., tried unsuccessfully in January to broker a compromise on the airport bill that would have permitted consideration of legislation (HR1383) to name the Justice Department headquarters after Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general and senator from New York. (Vote 5, p. 340)

But when efforts at a compromise broke down, the fighting broke out. "It was partisanship to the max," said House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio.

The 10,500-member National Air Traffic Controllers Association joined Democrats in criticizing Reagan for firing 11,000 air-traffic controllers during a 1981 strike. Randy Schwitz, the association's executive vice president, said he would prefer to have a "hot poker in my eye" than an airport named for Reagan.

Light Agenda

Democrats, with private agreement from some Republicans, questioned the amount of time spent debating the bill and the wisdom of making it the first bill passed this year.

"It's indicative that they have nothing else to do," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

The biggest challenge to the proposal came in the House, where Republicans Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, and Constance A. Morella of Maryland joined Democrats James P. Moran of Virginia and Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, in sponsoring an amendment to require approval of the local Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Backers of the amendment argued that the bill would pre-empt local decision-making, which Reagan championed. The House voted narrowly, 206-215, to defeat the amendment.

A last attempt to derail the bill failed when the House voted 186-237 against a motion to modify the bill and name one of the airport's terminals for Reagan. House Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, argued against the motion, pointing out that former presidents George Bush and John F. Kennedy both have entire airports named for them in Texas and New York. "To say that it is OK to name a terminal after Ronald Reagan is an insult to the name of one of the greatest presidents that has ever served this country," DeLay said.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday February 7, 1998

Opinion Polls' Lag Time May Benefit Clinton
'Big Stick' Approach To Iraq Masks Uncertainty On Hill
Clinton's Fancy Budget Work Upstages Skeptical GOP
Partisan Rancor Flares In Debate To Rename National Airport
Proof Of Illegal Voters Falls Short, Keeping Sanchez In House
Party Choice Wins Seat In Queens
Student Loan Program May Break The Bank
Rep. Harman To Enter Governor's Race
Clinton Establishes Council To Fix 'Year 2000' Glitch

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