Crane Rehabilitation May Help Gavel Bid

Right-wing Republican Congressman Phil Crane of Illinois is one of three candidates to become chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Crane was "treated" for alcoholism earlier this year. The following is from ROLL CALL, a Capital Hill newspaper.

March 23, 2000
Crane Rehabilitation May Help Gavel Bid by John Bresnahan

Rep. Phil Crane's (R-Ill.) decision this week to enroll in an alcohol rehabilitation program is being hailed by Members as an act of personal bravery in a town filled with politicians who downplay their personal flaws.

But Crane's public announcement of his battle with alcoholism also has political overtones,with some GOP lawmakers and aides suggesting that Crane may have removed one of the biggest impediments he faces in his quest to become the next chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

"I think that getting rid of the problem, that he has recognized that, is certainly going to help," said Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), who himself has been mentioned as a potential selection for the top spot on Ways and Means. "I think that facing up to a problem takes a lot of courage."

"I was very proud of him because it shows me a lot of discipline and a lot of courage," added Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), a close Crane ally.

"I think it does help him,"she added. "I think it helps him in terms of the discipline he has shown is something that Members want from a chairman of the Ways and Means Committee."

"He's taking affirmative action, absolutely," added a top aide to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who granted Crane a 30-day medical leave of absence to seek treatment at a facility in Maryland.

"I don't know if what he's doing will guarantee that he's the next chairman [of Ways and Means], but it helps," said the Hastert aide.

Crane's decision to take a leave of absence was outlined in a letter he circulated to his colleagues Tuesday.

"Over a period of time, I have sensed an increased dependence on alcohol," wrote Crane. "This dependence has taken a toll on my health and other aspects of my life. While this in many ways is a particularly difficult time for me to take a leave from the House, I have reached a point where I feel I must address this problem."

Crane's fellow lawmakers have speculated for years over whether his personal behavior would prevent him from getting the gavel for the powerful House panel. Several GOPsources said Crane's drinking has grown worse since his daughter died of cancer two years ago.

And since Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) has made little secret of his wish to replace the retiring Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) atop the committee, observers both on and off Capitol Hill have speculated about whether the rumors about Crane would prevent him from becoming chairman.

"There has been some nagging doubt about Phil's suitability," said one GOP lawmaker close to Crane."Nobody ever said, 'Well, he just can't do the job intellectually so let's just drop him.' It was always a question of whether he could get his act together enough to convince people he's the right person for the job."

Thomas, though, can be difficult to work with for some lawmakers. These Members believe that Crane's personal problems don't outweigh Thomas' occasionally caustic nature, despite the California Republican's well-recognized legislative prowess.

"It was always Phil's drinking versus Thomas' crankiness," claimed a GOP member of Ways and Means. "If Phil doesn't drink anymore, I don't see anything holding him back."

"It would be very hard for the Speaker to move forward and pass over Crane as the next chairman now," added another Ways and Means member, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

There is also the practical question for panel members of whether Crane or Thomas, or possibly another candidate, would give them the free rein they need to exploit their positions on the high-profile committee.

"It's now a question of who do you want to serve under," said a GOP lawmaker. "I think with Phil you might have a little better chance to shine than you would under Thomas. That's not to take anything away from Bill - he's brilliant, of course. But Members just may want a softer touch."

There has been talk within GOP circles in recent weeks that Hastert reached out to Crane and urged his friend from Illinois to clean up his act if he wanted to move ahead, although one Republican source claimed the message sent to Crane was not that blunt.

"There was some suggestion that Phil had a liability he had to deal with," said a GOP leadership source."But I don't know if even the Speaker thought he would do something this dramatic. It's encouraging."

But Crane still has one liability in a head-to-head matchup with Thomas, assuming the question of his personal behavior has been addressed.

Thomas is a prodigious fundraiser who will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for GOP candidates and incumbents this cycle, a tactic in the past that has not been matched by Crane.

Crane did form a leadership PAC last year, and held a recent fundraiser with the Speaker that some Crane aides were labeling at the time as a tacit endorsement of his claim to the Ways and Means chairmanship, although Hastert's staff strongly denied that assertion.

But for now, Republicans and Democrats alike are wishing Crane the best and hoping for a full recovery.

In a statement released by Crane's office, Hastert said, "My thoughts are with Phil Crane as he fights the disease of alcohol dependency. Phil is a fighter and I know he will be able to conquer this addiction."

Hastert also expressed sympathy for Crane's family, and reiterated his support for his longtime colleague.

"My thoughts and prayers are with Phil and his family," said Hastert. "This is a difficult but courageous decision, and Phil has my complete support on this journey to a more healthy life."

Archer also praised Crane for publicly admitting his condition and his decision to seek treatment for it.

"Phil Crane is my very dear friend and I think he has made a courageous decision that is right for himself, for his family, and for his constituents," said the Texas Republican.

"Phil has my full support and I look forward to his return to an extraordinary career in Congress and on the Ways and Means Committee."