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OFFICE POLITICS

WASHINGTON--Poor Morris Udall. It's not just his previous wife's 1988 suicide, or the Parkinson's disease robbing him of a body to match his sharp mind, or the injuries from a fall that have kept the Arizona congressman in hospital beds since January.

A photograph sums up Udall's situation; taken a week or so after John Kennedy's murder, it shows a workman trundling JFK's Boston rocker out a back door of the White House.

Sic transit gloria Washingtoniensis.
And if a president's grip on the emoluments of office is so tenuous, how about that of a House member, no matter how many times re-elected? Mo Udall isn't cold--hell, he isn't even dead--and already yardsticks are flashing in the corridors of power.

You see, among the many things his fellow suzerains understand about the venerable gentleman from the great Southwest, they know that by virtue of 30 years in the House he holds temporary title to some of Capitol Hill's choicest real estate: a second-floor Cannon Building office (Room 235 CHOB, in Hillspeak) and adjacent annex (Room 234 CHOB).

These wide-open spaces--a total of 2,300 square feet, or three times the size of the average office given a freshman member--extend far enough to inspire spasms of acquisitiveness among the least hegemony-minded rep.

Even before the honorific litany ended--O holy Mo, friend of the animals and the woods . . . most prescient Mo, early to dissent on Vietnam . . . wryly witty Mo, tosser-off of self-mocking jests . . . gently ambitious Mo, ironic reacher for the big brass ring--the office sharks were circling.

In the finest Western tradition, the May 4 resignation of Morris Udall--whose ancestors were among the land-grabbing hordes to descend on Arizona when that territory was thrown open to settlement--has triggered a MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.04 I9.06 range war, albeit one waged amid the shufflings of paper and congressional staffers' feet.

Mo Udall occupied 235 Cannon since 1977; before that he was in 1424 Longworth, and earlier in 456, 455, and 119 Cannon, hopscotching his way around in time-honored tradition. Both House and Senate assign offices by availability and seniority, meaning that if a choice place on the porch opens up, the big dogs can stroll in and plop down. Of course, with rare exception the Senate resembles the House of Lords--the usual way out is feet first. But the House is more of an eight-day bicycle race, with new riders rolling in every other year and each one of them constantly jockeying for position.

The new kids on the block get last dibs, but a veteran House member--Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), for example--can cock an eyebrow and get a sweet spot like the 1,100-square-foot Rayburn Building office vacated when Bob Kastenmeier (D-Wis.) got the gate last election. Dingell's 19 terms--and his willingness to move--gave him the pick right out of the box. Had 25-termer Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) decided to sign up for the drawing, he, not Dingell, would be arranging his desk to cover Kastenmeier's coffee stains.

But the monstrous seniority of the Whittens and the Dingells didn't stop more than 100 colleagues from applying for Kastenmeier's former perch, because each office move sets off an avalanche of openings. Once the old boys and girls skim off the creamy spaces, the less senior seekers can sniff the leavings.

In case of a tie--that is, when two members crave the same office, but neither has served longer than the other--the Capitol building superintendent holds a lottery, using numbered white pills shaken up in a box and doled out alphabetically to competitors. Most reps send staffers to the bingo game, but sometimes a family member or the actual politician shows up for the call.

In cases like Udall's, when an office opens up out of the election sequence, all members get a letter announcing its availability. They have 10 days to indicate interest, after which the space is assigned within 30 days, whether outright or by lottery; applications remain on file through the wave of openings that follows. When Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) vacated 2300 Rayburn the hard way--by dying--he set off a chain reaction of reassignments that Col 3, Depth P54.10 I9.14 to two, and in the Sixties the building's numbering system was revised utterly.

In addition, a long-ago housecleaning at the superintendent's office disposed of old records by the ream, making it a Schliemannesque job to trace the space back to even Joe Cannon (R-Ill.), after whom the building was named. The Office of the Congressional Historian exemplifies this churning; the historian and staff occupy 138 CHOB, a basement shoebox of a room that began as a congressional office, became a corridor leading to the barber shop, and finally achieved its current claustrophobic incarnation.

"Recently I was watching a film about Adam Clayton Powell on TV, and the camera followed him into the barber shop," historian Ray Smock said. "I thought to myself, `He's going right past where my desk is now.'"

But even amid such unending revisionism, the numbers 234 and 235 CHOB are figures to conjure with. In 1909, the occupant of the original 235 was James M. Curley (D-Mass.), who went on to become the legendary mayor of Boston; in 1919, 234 housed Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y.), the Little Flower who later ran New York City.

North-facing Cannon offices have splendid views of the Capitol. Udall's four rooms sit 10 feet above Independence Avenue, with the Capitol dome visible through grandly arched windows and the Library of Congress in full effect over to the right. The suite's imperial dimensions easily overpower the banks of fluorescents barnacled to its ceilings. A flimsy room divider that gerrymanders a reception area into the front quarter of 234 all but disappears when you focus on the high baseboards, thick ogee trim, and massive crown moldings that have paid nearly 90 years of silent witness to politics.

The Democratic leadership could rain on the parade of potential office-takers that Udall staffers expected as soon as their man's resignation was official. The bigwigs have it in their power to lop off 234 as separate space--Udall got it belatedly on the basis of his chairmanship of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee--and run it through a separate lottery. But even so, after the scrabble for Kastenmeier's domain (which was barely half the size of the whole Udall package), Capitol building superintendent Bob Miley is expecting a long list of supplicants. He's accustomed to the crush.

"During the 101st Congress we had 13 to 15 vacancies, which isn't unusual," Col 2, Depth

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Michael Dolan