- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. broke party ranks yesterday to back a Republican for speaker of the House.

The House Democratic Caucus responded last night by voting to deny the Ohioan a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"If he wants a committee assignment, he is going to have to go to the Republicans," said Laura Nichols, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat. "He is no longer a member in good standing."

House Democratic Caucus rules bar members from helping a non-Democrat in a partisan election.

The move was debated for about 90 minutes within the caucus and was opposed by a "smattering" of Democrats, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

Denying Mr. Traficant a committee slot falls short of removing him from the House Democratic Caucus, but may have little practical difference from an ouster because committee assignments are key to a member's power.

As the fifth-ranking Democrat on the transportation committee, Mr. Traficant would have been entitled to serve as the "ranking member" on a subcommittee, a title that brings with it a larger staff and some extra power.

The maverick has said for months he planned to vote for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, while Democrats made repeated efforts to change his mind.

In the end, Mr. Hastert won the race with 222 votes to 206 votes for Mr. Gephardt. There is one vacancy in the 435-member House; six members voted "present" or for other candidates, or were absent.

Mr. Traficant "really appreciated the way Speaker Hastert led the 106th Congress and felt he was the best man for the position for the 107th," spokesman Charles Straub said yesterday. "It is nothing personal against Mr. Gephardt."

Mr. Straub said Mr. Traficant was particularly pleased with the Republican decision to include a proposal of his in the 1998 Internal Revenue Service reform bill. The legislation, which Democrats would not even consider when they controlled Congress, placed the burden of proof on the IRS, not the taxpayer, in tax disputes.

Mr. Traficant spent the afternoon before yesterday's vote on the Republican side of the House chamber and was sitting in a back bench there when it came time for him to vote.

Republicans applauded loudly.

Democrats sarcastically applauded back.

Mr. Traficant will not now become a Republican, Mr. Straub said. But it is not clear what he will do now that his committee post has been taken away. In the worst-case scenario, Mr. Straub said, Mr. Traficant will declare himself an "Independent Democrat."

Democrats were not impressed.

Kena Hudson, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party said, "He campaigns for Republicans. He votes for Republicans. He says he is a Democrat, but he sure doesn't sound like one."

In the House, Mr. Traficant has broken with Democratic Party leaders on more and more key votes over the past few years.

Last March, Mr. Traficant helped Republicans overcome a conservative revolt against legislation that cut taxes but also increased the minimum wage.

At a closed-door Republican meeting, Mr. Traficant won a standing ovation after speaking for 20 minutes, warning conservatives that "if they want Speaker Gephardt instead of Speaker Hastert, vote against the bill."

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, said Mr. Traficant's vote yesterday did not affect the outcome and "if he is punished for that, then it does not speak well for Democratic promises of bipartisanship."

But Mr. Armey and Mr. Hastert both said before the caucus vote that they would "wait and see" what happens to Mr. Traficant before deciding whether to give him a committee assignment under the Republican allocation.

Miss Nichols said Democrats did not throw out Mr. Traficant. "He walked away," she said.

She said Mr. Traficant had a number of options. He could have simply voted "present" or backed another Democrat, as Rep. Gene Taylor, Mississippi Democrat, chose to do. Mr. Taylor voted for Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, as he did in 1998.

Repercussions for Mr. Traficant may not end in Washington.

David Leland, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Mr. Traficant has "betrayed the people of the Mahoning Valley," whose district he represents.

"In the next few weeks, since this is a local issue, I'm going to meet with local party leaders in the valley and see what they think is appropriate," Mr. Leland said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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