Union Tribune

October 29, 2003 

Get-to-know trip becomes fire-aid mission for Gov.-elect

By DANA WILKIE
Copley News Service

 WASHINGTON Arnold Schwarzenegger brought an undeniable dash of Hollywood excitement to Capitol Hill Wednesday, but the first visit to Washington by California's governor-elect had a more somber purpose than originally anticipated.

With so much of the state battling wildfires, Schwarzenegger appealed for federal money to combat the disaster, and would not rule out new taxes as a way to offset the huge cost of battling the blazes.

"We're still in the middle of the problem," he said when asked if the fires constituted the type of "disaster" he has said might convince him to rethink his "no new taxes" pledge. "I think we should let it play out and come up with the ideas of how we can solve the problem and ... how much we need to pay for (the
fires). Right now, we don't have to make the decision."

Veteran Capitol Hill lawmakers credited Schwarzenegger in part with convincing Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to set up at least six "one-stop" disaster centers in California that will offer services from 13 separate government agencies and from insurance companies.

"I'm sure the governor-elect helped," said California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who - along with outgoing Gov. Gray Davis - had also urged the agency to go beyond the single center it had planned on opening.

Foreign heads-of-state and sometimes even U.S. presidents don't get the kind of attention Schwarzenegger did Wednesday as he charged through Washington, meeting with congressional leaders, budget writers, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

At a weekly meeting of House Republicans that typically draws only about 140 lawmakers, nearly all of the House's 229 Republicans showed up, some bringing personal cameras. They gave the governor-elect a standing ovation. Everywhere he
went, he was followed by staffers, guards, lawmakers, news cameras and reporters.

"Arnold has star power," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach. "If there's anybody who can pry loose money out of a federal budget this tight, it's someone with the political power ... of Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Schwarzenegger vowed during his campaign to get more federal money for California, but whether the film star can deliver remains to be seen. The nation has a $374 billion budget deficit, and is facing huge bills for homeland security and for rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan.

"What the state needs is $20 billion or so to solve its fiscal crisis, and it 's not going to get that in some lump sum from the federal government," said Bruce Cain, a political analyst at the University of California Berkeley. "What he will get, possibly, is aid in specific categories, and of course, the thing that's now jumped right to the head of the queue is aid for fire victims."

Schwarzenegger began his visit by meeting with FEMA director Michael Brown. The costs for battling the fires and for reconstruction - which officials say could be billions of dollars - will be thrust to the top of Schwarzenegger's agenda when he takes office next month. He is already facing a projected $8
billion state budget deficit.

"The huge disastrous fires have changed my mission a little bit,"
Schwarzenegger said. "I'm now looking for federal money for the ... victims of the fire."

Congress is considering spending $500 million to help fight the fires and rebuild communities.

Schwarzenegger met with California Democratic Sens. Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, a weapons ban, which expires this year. He also said he had no hard feelings about Feinstein campaigning against him or appearing in TV ads reminding voters about
allegations that Schwarzenegger groped several women without their consent.

"You have to understand the way it works in politics - she's not going to come out and cut a commercial for me," Schwarzenegger said. "We will be working together like a jewel."

Said Feinstein: "What's past is past. I think we have to ... turn the page and move on."

Other California Democrats were more skeptical. Rep. Ellen Tauscher of Walnut Creek said Democrats raised a host of concerns with the governor-elect during a meeting, including coming military base closures and federal contracts for
minority-owned businesses. She said a few of the issues seemed "somewhat esoteric to the governor right now."

Schwarzenegger planned Thursday to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney before heading home.