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It's like father, like son for Rep. Gus Bilirakis

WASHINGTON — Shortly after Rep. Gus Bilirakis took his seat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the Democratic chairman pulled him aside.

Back when Republicans were in charge, Rep. Bob Filner told him, Bilirakis' father worked with him to make headway on veterans issues despite opposition from the conservative Republican who then was chairman.

Filner was, in his own words, touched.

"I took it as a kindly thing. Congress doesn't see a lot of kindly things," he said.

So when Bilirakis was elected in 2006 to replace his father, Mike, "I said look, your dad gave a lot and I want to say thank you to your dad by helping you," Filner recalled. "So that's what we've been doing."

• • •

In terms of clout among the 435 members of the U.S. House, Bilirakis is tied with the other 12 Republican newbies for last.

Yet, as his first term draws to a close and he's challenged by Tampa Democrat Bill Mitchell, Bilirakis has passed several substantive bills. His accomplishments aren't society-changing measures that kids are likely to study in school, but he's convinced Democrats and Republicans to accept ideas for tweaking the federal bureaucracy, improving veterans benefits and improving homeland security.

Colleagues say he's harnessed the goodwill his father built during 24 years in the U.S. House. He also inherited some of his dad's top aides.

As important, Bilirakis has mostly avoided partisan food fights in favor of kitchen-table issues such as the "silver alert" bill, which would help states set up systems to find missing senior citizens.

It helps, too, that Bilirakis, 45, of Palm Harbor, is seen by many from both parties as a hard-working everyman, a slightly rumpled father of four who's good at making friends.

"I know how politics is played. The (Democratic) leadership, they're trying to stick it to us, and you know I wasn't up here, but I'm sure we probably weren't very good to them, either," Bilirakis said. "You need consensus builders. … That's what I've been doing. And they've been very fair to me."

• • •

In many respects, it's a good time to play nice. Republicans lost control of Congress the year Bilirakis was elected, and the past two years have brought public dissatisfaction both with partisan gridlock and with the Republican president.

Like many freshman colleagues, he has backed several Democratic measures that President Bush and his party leaders opposed, like raising the minimum wage and implementing the recommendations of the independent 9/11 commission.

And he was the only congressional Republican from Florida to criticize the president's decision to commute the prison sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, for his role in outing CIA agent Valerie Plame.

His willingness to listen to Democrats has helped convince Democrats to listen to him.

"He and I have a good relationship, and we work well together," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., chairman of a homeland security subcommittee on the border on which Bilirakis serves. "If I have to slap him around, I do."

• • •

Despite his desire for consensus on some issues, however, Bilirakis is a conservative who has voted with his party 90 percent of the time, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly. Democrats hope to build a case against him in the Nov. 4 election by highlighting his continued support for tax breaks for oil companies and his opposition to several popular measures, including expanding health care for children of the working poor.

He also voted against a bill requiring Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prescription drug prices, and he has strongly backed the president's policies in Iraq.

His opponent, Mitchell, criticized Bilirakis for failing to play a leadership role in how Congress should address economic problems. Even as the housing market was crashing, Bilirakis voted against a measure barring brokers from steering people to mortgages they can't afford.

"There is just a lack of strength, from the fact that he never came out and said this is a problem in the subprime market, we've got to do something," said Mitchell, a lawyer and Navy veteran who has a master's degree in economics.

This month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put the contest on its list of "emerging races," though most analyses consider Mitchell a long shot. Bilirakis has raised more than $1.1-million for his re-election, while Mitchell has raised about one-tenth of that.

• • •

Bilirakis arrived early for the judiciary subcommittee hearing on his silver alert bill. In Congress, how many members show up for a hearing often depends on the level of controversy expected; only four subcommittee members showed. They didn't even have the quorum needed to refer the bill to the full committee.

No matter. Bilirakis gave his testimony, explaining he got the idea this spring, after an 86-year-old Largo woman was found drowned in her car in the Intracoastal Waterway a week after she'd left her assisted-living facility for the grocery store.

No one knows how long Mary Zelter had driven around after she was reported missing. Bilirakis and the woman's daughter were frustrated with the lack of an organized way to warn police and the public to look for her.

"The experience of states that have already developed silver alert systems prove that these systems can help save lives," he said. "I believe the federal government can and should help states develop systems to prevent these all too frequent tragedies."

He noted the bill's 87 co-sponsors, including 38 Democrats.

One downside of serving in the minority is that popular ideas often get co-opted by the majority. The silver alert was no different. Committee leaders decided to roll his bill into a similar measure sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. The bill would pass the full committee in August, then pass the House by voice vote a month later. It is pending in the Senate.

"Listen, the way you get things done up here is to work until you get consensus, and like Ronald Reagan said, you can get a lot done if you don't really care who gets the credit," Bilirakis said. "I realize that the issue is more important than whose name is on the bill."

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor

Committees: Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Foreign Affairs.

House positions: co-chairman, Hellenic Caucus; chairman, House Republican task force on veterans issues; senior freshman whip.

Key legislation he sponsored:

• Silver alert: Establishes a federal grants program for states to set up systems for notifying police and the public about missing senior citizens. Awaiting Senate approval.

• Military pay raise: Approved a minimum 3.5 percent pay raise to all members of the armed services for fiscal year 2008. Included in the National Defense Department Authorization Act and signed into law.

• Veterans benefits: Eliminated the 20-year service requirement for special compensation for combat veterans. Included in the Defense Authorization Act and signed into law.

• Homeland security: Expanded a pilot program that creates a biometric database of illegal immigrants caught at sea that will allow law enforcement officials to check them against people wanted for crimes, terrorism or other offenses. Passed the House in July.

It's like father, like son for Rep. Gus Bilirakis 10/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 2:24am]
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