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Home from the front, Ehrlich tells contract war stories


With the first battles over, but the war just begun, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. returned to his Baltimore area district yesterday to spread the good news from the front.

Mr. Ehrlich, like other congressional Republicans, is on orders from House Speaker Newt Gingrich to spend the three-week Easter recess promoting the accomplishments of the GOP-led House.

Mr. Gingrich's instructions reflect Republican fear that in the rush to pass their ambitious "Contract with America" political agenda in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress that they failed to explain adequately their actions and motivations to the public.

Mr. Ehrlich, a freshman Republican, began doing his part yesterday, criss-crossing from Cockeysville to Glen Burnie to Bel Air to catch up with voters.

In Mr. Ehrlich's largely conservative district -- which includes most of Baltimore County, all of Harford and a portion of Anne Arundel -- the reaction was warm. When constituents weren't bashing the press for being anti-Republican, they complained that the fast-moving Congress was still not doing enough.

A Baltimore County firefighter made a case for overhauling affirmative action. A financial consultant in Lutherville suggested it was time to turn Social Security over to the private sector.

And, in Glen Burnie, an insurance agent challenged Congress to do what it takes to balance the budget, instead of worrying about tax cuts.

"I really think the middle class people didn't have their life set on a tax cut," Julie Hofferbert of Baltimore said at a gathering of agents. "It was more the idea that Congress should get its house in order."

"I hear you," Mr. Ehrlich said. "But I think you'll be very happy come May or June, when we take up budget cuts."

"Not everybody will be happy," he quickly added, with a grin.

If there is one person who appears happy, it's Mr. Ehrlich, a 37-year-old lawyer and veteran of the state legislature.

He repeatedly described the joy of being a member of the much-ballyhooed class of 73 freshmen Republicans in the House.

"It's a great place to be," he said. "The fun thing for me is that the focal point of the U.S. government is the floor of the House of Representatives. To be there at this time in history is great."

But again and again, Mr. Ehrlich was careful to warn constituents that the hardest votes are still ahead -- when Congress begins cutting the federal budget.

Also looming are contentious votes on social issues, including affirmative action, gun control, abortion and school prayer.

He received plenty of advice on those, as well.

"I'm not saying throw affirmative action out," said James L. Kinard, a member of the board of the Baltimore County firefighters union. "But we need to change some things that have been done historically."

Mr. Ehrlich agreed, saying that affirmative action tarnishes minorities who achieve success without special help.

Although Mr. Ehrlich was in the thick of the GOP's accomplishments in Washington, he acknowledges he wasn't playing a lead role.

"I'm used to having more direct input on legislation. Obviously, in Annapolis, I was more involved," he said, recalling his eight years in the House of Delegates where he had a key role on several bills, despite being a Republican in a chamber controlled by Democrats.

Mr. Ehrlich recounted a couple of times he had gone his own way on some parts of the Republican agenda by opposing term limits and some elements of legislation to curtail frivolous lawsuits.

Then there was the key procedural vote to bring the Republicans' tax-cut bill to the floor of the House.

Mr. Ehrlich would not vote with leadership because the bill included a provision cutting federal pension benefits, which stands to affect many of his constituents. He was one of only a handful of Republican holdouts.

"Gingrich asked to see me. I said, 'Uh-oh.' That was the first time that had happened," Mr. Ehrlich recalled. "He knew my situation. He said, 'Bobby, you do what you have to do.' That's a pretty good leader."

In between stops yesterday, Mr. Ehrlich popped lifesavers and talked back to the radio as he listened to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, his liberal Democratic colleague from Baltimore, on a talk show.

"Government can't solve all of our problems," said Mr. Cardin, echoing a line often used by conservative Republicans.

"Ah, yes. Ben!" Mr. Ehrlich exclaimed.

Mr. Ehrlich said the generally positive response he is receiving is, in part, a reaction to the ability of the House to accomplish something -- anything -- after the gridlock pace of recent years.

But, Congress can't relax, Mr. Ehrlich was reminded at a gathering of financial consultants in their Towson office.

"You better perform," Alan Seider told Mr. Ehrlich. "People are telling you that they might just turn you out if you don't produce."

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