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Nethercutt Gears Up Re-Election Efforts Congressman Hones Political Skills, Defends Gop Budget Stance

When U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt toured the Whitman County Hospital last week, talk turned inevitably to the subject that is derailing federal budget talks: Medicare.

Like President Clinton and congressional leaders who are locked in a political death-struggle over the budget, the staff of this 32-bed rural hospital worries about changes to the nation’s largest medical program. About 65 percent of the hospital’s patients are on Medicare.

The compact hospital on a hill in this community of 2,100 is rated as one of America’s 100 best by a national hospital consulting firm. It practices the gospel that congressional Republicans preach - smaller is better and community involvement beats government intervention.

Nethercutt, a Spokane Republican beginning his second year in Congress and his first re-election campaign, was finishing up a two-week visit to his 5th Congressional District of Eastern Washington.

The stop at Whitman County Hospital bolstered the congressman’s conviction that Republicans are right in their quest to cut government spending and regulation.

For hospital Administrator Gordon McLean and Medical Director Robert Tulin, the important question is not how many billion dollars will be trimmed from Medicare.

A greater concern is paperwork, which threatens to overwhelm them. “Every agency wants data,” said McLean. “There’s an obsession to fill up their mega-computers. We’re a little guppy trying to feed a whale.”

“Regardless of what they do with Medicare, we will be OK, as long as we are treated the same as the bigger hospitals,” Tulin said.

As he left the hospital, Nethercutt agreed that the kinds of concerns the hospital has over Medicare are being lost in the debate over the budget in Washington, D.C.

How could the debate be redirected?

“I think you inject (the concerns) in there in a deliberate fashion,” he said. “But we have to change the structure of the system, then finetune it.”

For the 51-year-old lawyer, the budget remains the key to everything. He is willing to bet his congressional seat that GOP leaders are right if they decide to prolong the budget battle through the year and ask voters to choose between them and Clinton in November.

He’s not sure if that’s the best course, but “there may be no other choice,” he said while driving his Isuzu Trooper north on U.S. Highway 195 to catch a plane that would take him back to the capital.

During the visit to his district, Nethercutt talked to farmers at Ag Expo in Spokane, disabled students at a community college, reporters and chamber of commerce members in Spokane and Pullman.

In his various appearances, he defended the Republican stand on the budget, called the president a liar - albeit nicely - and insisted there would be no wavering on a balanced budget and tax cuts.

Opposing views were limited. Nethercutt was met by a small group of environmental protesters at one stop and was denounced by Democrats and a liberal activist group, Washington Citizens Action, as a pawn of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

In the 800-plus votes he cast during his first year in Congress, Nethercutt voted the same way as House Republican leaders more than 95 percent of the time, the activist group said. Political action committees controlled by Gingrich and other GOP leaders gave him $80,000 in campaign money, they said.

“He ran saying he was going to be a listener,” said Bill First, a longtime Democratic activist and former staffer for ex-Rep. Tom Foley, who represented the 5th district for 30 years. “He’s listening to Newt Gingrich.”

Nethercutt said he doesn’t know how much he has received from various GOP committees, but the amount is irrelevant because no one ever asked him for a vote because of a contribution.

“That is no surprise, that I’m going to vote more like a Republican than a Democrat,” he said. “There’s no quid pro quo.”

Nethercutt’s year in the House has been physically and emotionally draining, with days that typically start at 7:30 a.m. and often end at midnight or later. “I drank more coffee in the last year than I’ve ever drunk in my life,” he said, looking out on the frosted Palouse hills.

It has been less draining since his family moved to suburban Virginia last summer. His wife, Mary Beth, landed a part-time job as an attorney for the Senate Government Affairs Committee.

For all those extra hours, critics say this Congress works more but produces less.

A study by Roll Call, a daily newspaper serving Capitol Hill, reports the 104th Congress has been in session 50 percent more than its predecessor but has passed 18 percent fewer laws. Much of the “Contract With America” - the House Republicans’ blueprint for their revolution and their main concern during the first 100 days of 1995 - languishes in the Senate. The number of bills that have been passed by the House but have bogged down in the Senate, or vice versa, also is greater.

Nethercutt is unfazed by such statistics. He related a story about his son’s guitar teacher who asked him to do just one favor before he left for Congress. What did the teacher want him to do? “Less.”

“Just passing laws, you can’t conclude those are positive results. We’re not on a mission of passing a lot of laws,” he said. “The bills we passed were the important ones.”

Yet, six of the most important bills - appropriations bills for various government agencies - have not been passed. Three cleared both chambers, were vetoed by the president and could not be overridden. Three have yet to pass the Senate.

Nethercutt blamed those appropriations bills problems on Democrats. Clinton should have signed the first three and the minority Democrats should stop filibustering the others, he said.

But two years ago, candidate Nethercutt routinely criticized Foley for bills that were passed by the House but died in the Senate from filibusters by Republicans, who then were in the minority.

How is this any different?

“It was viewed as less of a frustration when the filibuster was used then. Based on the ‘94 elections, the public was glad there was a Republican minority in the Senate to stop some of the things the Democrats wanted to send through,” Nethercutt said.

“I think the public feels the Democrats (now) are frustrating rather than helping the process.”

How can he be sure?

“You judge by elections. We’ll know in ‘96.”

During the 1994 campaign, Nethercutt was the novice taking on the master, the sitting speaker of the House. Now, as he enters his second campaign, there are signs he has honed his political skills during a year in Washington, D.C.

Interviewed by journalists on “Spokane This Week,” Nethercutt bemoaned the impending closure of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which has offices and some 150 employees in Spokane. “I’m a Westerner, and I think mines are important,” he said.

Yet, he criticized Clinton for vetoing the Interior appropriations bill without mentioning that the bill - which he voted for repeatedly - called for closure of the bureau.

Like many members of Congress, Nethercutt criticizes the tone of debate as a disservice to the nation.

“There’s a willingness on the part of many members to angrily identify the motives of their opponents. Maybe we’ve gone beyond respect,” he said.

“That’s not my nature. I don’t see any great benefit out of insulting your opponents. … I don’t want to be a part of it. It’s not necessary to rise to that level of insult.”

Reminded he had called the president dishonest less than 24 hours earlier, Nethercutt first appeared shocked. “Not dishonest - factually challenged,” he contended.

But when his words were read back to him, Nethercutt shrugged goodnaturedly and defended his words.

“Seeing is believing. You gain perspective from your experience. There is a certain dishonesty in making these wild charges about the impact of change in America that’s being undertaken,” he said.

As he turned off Highway 195 and headed for the airport, Nethercutt considered whether he is a better politician now.

He paused.

“I know more now. Knowledge is always useful,” he said. “I think you’re re-elected on the basis of your performance, whether you’ve been honest with your constituents and whether you’re responsive.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo