WASHINGTON -- The committee won't coalesce behind him. He's not strong enough. He won't make a good chairman.

That's what some people around this town are saying about Sam Gibbons. But that was also the knock on Dan Rostenkowski in 1981, and on Pat Moynihan in 1993.

Thirteen years ago, Rostenkowski, D-Ill., ascended to the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee upon the departure of Rep. Al Ullman, D-Ore. As the second highest-ranking Democrat, Rostenkowski was known for showing little interest in the committee's proceedings and attending few panel sessions.

But contrary to the prognostications. Rostenkowski grew into the job. The same seems to have happened to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., who became Senate Finance Committee chairman early in 1993 when former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Tex., vacated the post to become Treasury Secretary.

Moynihan's critics considered him too eccentric to run the finance committee. Moynihan, they said, was better suited to thinking lofty thoughts in an ivory tower than to doing the Rostenkowski-like thing of cutting deals in back rooms. They thought Moynihan would crumble in any one-on-one negotiations with his formidable House counterpart.

But Moynihan took a lot of Capitol Hill watchers by surprise last year by skillfully guiding his panel through a mine field of tax legislation, and prevailing on a number of points in House-Senate conference sessions with Rostenkowski.

This year, Moynihan has been quietly tackling the issue of health care reform, taking his members behind closed doors for a long series of meetings in an attempt to find a consensus. Participants in those meetings report that Moynihan is adept at keeping tempers under control and not getting bogged down on any one issue.

Now the spotlight has turned on Gibbons, the 74-year-old from Florida's 11th congressional district. When U.S. attorney Eric Holder announced the 17-count felony indictment against Rostenkowski last week, Gibbons automatically became acting chairman of the Ways and Means panel.

Gibbons is considered by many to be in way over his head. He is not known to be a dealmaker like Rostenkowski, and instead has a reputation for being a bit of a maverick. In an August 1993 story in The Bond Buyer, lobbyists used words like "unpredictable," "opinionated," and "difficult" to describe him. They also said he takes little interest in tax issues, preferring trade matters.

But one long-time Capitol Hill watcher, who counts Gibbons as a personal friend, warns against rushing to judgment on the new acting chairman.

"I have had the utmost respect for his integrity and his acumen. He's a very bright and dedicated guy," according to this lobbyist. "Gibbons is always there" during committee deliberations. "He has done his homework. He knows his stuff."

When asked why the picture of Gibbons being painted in the media is an negative one, the lobbyist said, "I think people don't know him, and so they're underrating him. Anyone who underestimates Sam Gibbons is making a grave mistake."

For his part, Gibbons seems to have hit the ground running, even though he was in Europe to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day when the indictment was announced.

Gibbons has dived into the health care morass, issuing a long-distance order from Europe to the committee staff to draft a "chairman's mark," or starting proposal, over the next several days.

One of the Democratic leadership's concerns about Gibbons was that his views on how to reform the health care system differed sharply from those of Rostenkowski, who was staunchly supporting President Clinton's plan. According to the May 27 edition of the Washington Post, however, Gibbons has personally assured the President and Hillary Rodham Clinton that he will press for enactment of Clinton's plan.

"There's no doubt about it, I'm totally on board," the Post quotes Gibbons as saying. "The committee knows it, the Clintons know it, and my district knows it."

Gibbons at least is eager to tackle the job. Whether he is as skilled as his predecessor on the committee or his counterpart in the Senate remains to be seen. But if Rostenkowski and Moynihan are any indication, it's way too early to count Gibbons out.

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