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New Congress Sets Sights On `California Agenda'

Despite decreased political clout, Golden State is on GOP's mind

WITH the Republicans set to be the new custodians of Congress, states are queuing up to ask: What does it mean for us?

For California, the answer holds problems and promise.

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While the state has lost some of its clout with the fall of the Democratic leadership, many in the new GOP vanguard are promising to adopt a ``California agenda'' that will stress issues important to the region.

Neither party, of course, can risk completely ignoring the Golden State. Because of its rich bounty of voters - and earlier presidential primary - it will be a key vineyard for White House aspirants in 1996.

President Clinton, whose tenure in the Oval office in particular may depend on California, has been wooing the state the past two years. Now Republicans, mindful of its importance, are making similar sounds.

Of immediate concern to some state politicans is the loss of eight committee and subcommittee chairs in the House as a result of the shift in power. Chairmanships that belonged to such Democratic names as Ron Dellums (chair of the House Armed Services Committee), George Brown (Natural Resources), and Henry Waxman (health and environment subcommittee within Energy and Commerce) have been handed over to Republican counterparts.

Many will take aim at agendas and accomplishments long held dear. Subsidized health care for the poor, environmental regulations, and AIDS research are three liberal favorites many see on the GOP chopping block.

``California lost a lot of its influence,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. ``If you look at the potential reorganization of Congress, the state of California is just not a factor.''

But in the meantime, the buzzwords ``California agenda'' have been rolling off the lips of Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich, heartening some policymakers here.

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``This is the largest state ... the leading edge of our economy, and an extraordinarily important center of energy and creativity,'' said Mr. Gingrich at a press conference with Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in November.

Gingrich promised the establishment of a task force to work directly with Wilson in monitoring and developing an agenda on issues ranging from crime, immigration, welfare, and health, to environment and business.

Topping the list of concerns to be looked into, according to Wilson aide Paul Kranhold, are federal mandates regarding immigration, health, welfare, and other entitlements. Governor Wilson has hammered the Clinton administration in recent years about the cost of paying for federally mandated services to illegals. He wants Washington to reimburse the state $2 billion to $3 billion.

Responding to Wilson and other border governors, Gingrich talked of ``liberating the states to be laboratories of democracy again. You're going to see lots of reaching out to Democratic and Republican governors.'' On immigration, Gingrich wants to get tough at the border, while helping states with the financial burdens.

``It is a federal duty to deport those who are here illegally,'' he has said. ``And it is a federal duty to bear any costs that are required for those who are here.''

A Wilson strategist who monitors Washington activities says substantial dialogue between the governor and Speaker-elect on immigration and other issues began in advance of the midterm elections. ``Gingrich and the new Congress are going to focus on ways to give states more ways to operate on their own,'' says the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``That means each state is free to look at their own list of issues with creative solutions under an entirely new federal-state relationship.''

That, in turn, means looking at programs, mandates, and regulations statewide that could be written out of upcoming budgets. In California, the list includes some environmental programs called for under the federal Endangered Species Act; welfare reform; infrastructure initiatives which lower the cost of capital and increase funds for transportation and environment; streamlining military base reuse procedures.

``The Speaker realizes that California has lost several powerful congressional chairs and his `California Agenda' overtures are his way of acknowledging that California needs to be paid attention to,'' says Jan Denton, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based California Institute, a bipartisan think tank.

But others are less optimistic.

``Nothing is rolling off Newt Gingrich's lips to suggest he is going to assist economic development [here] or deal with some of our problems in the export-import arena,'' notes Dr. Berg.

The issue of defense funding, which could help California's ailing aerospace industry, is still a question mark. Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of Berkeley, says $25 billion boost in spending announced last week can only be a boon to California.

But other analysts say the impact over the next few years will be miniscule.

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