Foreign Affairs Panel Chairman Shuns Spotlight, Works on Legislation on QT

Rep. Howard Berman keeps a big Thermos behind his desk. That way, he never has to ask anyone to fetch coffee for him.

The new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman also picks up his own dry cleaning and drives his own car.

It is a self-sufficiency that Berman has carefully nurtured over his 13 terms in Congress. Now that he has ascended to one of the most influential posts on Capitol Hill, he still rejects the trappings of power, and prefers to keep operating as a behind-the-scenes player.

He even barred an Associated Press photographer from taking his picture for this story.

"Sometimes the best things are done when the media doesn't know about it, because then a lot of other people don't know about it," Berman said. "The media is a conduit of information to the people who wouldn't like what I was doing."

It's not that Berman has anything to hide, friends say.

"He's much more interested in accomplishing things than being out front and visible," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who's known Berman since their college days at the University of California, Los Angeles. They presided over a famously effective Democratic machine in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s that helped elect like-minded politicians to local and state offices.

Berman's committee has oversight over policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the globe's hotspots. He was in Israel over the weekend with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on his first overseas trip as chairman.

Outside of Washington, Berman had his fair share of political scrapes. In 1980, he made a grab for the speakership of the California Assembly but was outfoxed by Willie Brown, who went on to become California's longest-serving Assembly speaker and mayor of San Francisco. In 2001, he drew ire when his congressional district was redrawn in a way seen by some Latinos as diluting Hispanic voting power. Berman was able to emerge from the episode with strong Latino support due to his long record as a champion of farmworker and immigrant rights.

In Washington, he's thrived on an understated, collaborative approach. His leadership style is far different from that of his predecessor, California Democrat Tom Lantos, who died of cancer in February. As Congress' only Holocaust survivor, Lantos' personal history, dignified bearing and eloquent oratory made him one of Congress' most recognizable figures.

Berman, by comparison, is unprepossessing. His graying, curly hair is rumpled. His speaking style is halting and thoughtful. He doesn't have a press secretary.

A photo in Berman's office attests to the fact that he visited a grand cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia -- wearing a Hawaiian print shirt.

"He combined a real passion with a tremendous eloquence," Berman said of Lantos. "That's just not my strong suit. I'm more of an inside animal."

Berman makes up for his lack of style with substance. He's praised for a piercing intellect, keen memory and grasp of arcane topics. His recent legislative efforts included reforms to the country's byzantine patent system. He also proposed removing apartheid-era visa restrictions against Nelson Mandela and expanding President Bush's foreign aid program for HIV/AIDS victims.

"He is able to provide creative solutions or additional solutions if the first don't work," said Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "They talk about show horses and work horses and Howard is clearly in the work horse category par excellence."

When Lantos was Foreign Affairs chairman, he presided over dramatic hearings and votes. He denounced Yahoo Inc. executives as moral pygmies for cooperating with Beijing and he passed a controversial resolution condemning the World War I-era killings of Armenians as genocide.

Berman's goals seem dull by comparison: Regularly completing routine but necessary legislation authorizing State Department programs, rebuilding support for foreign assistance and public diplomacy, addressing nuclear proliferation, examining dependence on Middle East oil.

Berman's most high-profile outing to date was an April hearing on Iraq. An early Iraq war supporter who stuck behind it far longer than most Democrats, Berman tried to draw out his witnesses, Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, on how to effectively withdraw troops if U.S. voters choose that approach in November.

When Petraeus and Crocker demurred, Berman remarked, "Well, then I'm not going to beat that horse anymore," and changed topics.

Berman doesn't support the firm withdrawal deadlines backed by many of his Democratic colleagues. He says he would never have supported the war knowing what he knows now, but blames himself, not the Bush administration, for making an error in judgment.

"The lesson learned for me was challenge yourself and your own predispositions more on some of these things, and challenge the evidence more. I wasn't sufficiently skeptical," Berman said.

Democrats and Republicans say Berman takes a collaborative approach. He negotiated $20 billion more in foreign HIV/AIDS assistance than the White House requested, according to Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J. The proposal passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said that when Berman approached him about the Mandela's visa restrictions, his initial reaction was that the U.S. should be adding people to the terror list, not taking them off. Berman talked him around.

"He knows how to negotiate," said Smith. "He's willing to take half a loaf rather than a full loaf, and then come back for more later on."