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Long-Time Congressman Silvio Conte Dies

February 9, 1991 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rep. Silvio Conte, affable top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and dean of the Massachusetts delegation, died Friday night of a brain hemorrhage, his office announced.

Conte, 69, had been hospitalized since Feb. 1, for a blood clot on the brain and undergone repeated surgery.

His office said in a statement that doctors believe his cerebral bleeding stemmed from the progression of prostate cancer for which he had surgery in 1987. Doctors attributed death to ″extensive intracerebral bleeding,″

Conte, a gregarious, cigar-chomping deal-maker, brought home the bacon for his western Massachusetts district for 17 terms, more than three decades and angered GOP conservatives with his liberal votes. He was the only Republican in a 11-member House delegation that, when Conte was elected, was split between the parties.

His district became largely Democratic during his tenure, but Conte had no opposition in seven of his elections.

Conte’s long-time congressional neighbor from the adjacent district, former Rep. Edward Boland, D-Mass., said Friday night, ″I don’t think two members of congress from different parties were closer than Representative Conte and I ... I don’t think anyone ever would have defeated him.″

Though he once wore a pig mask on the House floor to ridicule pork-barrel politics, Conte could win money for his district with the best of them. He was the senior Republican on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Stout and gray-haired with a voice that could shake the walls of the House chamber, it was hard to argue with the pull of a man who could get House Minority Leader Bob Michel to put on an Italian waiter’s outfit and serenade him at a testimonial dinner. Maybe that’s why Conte felt he could get away with driving around Capitol Hill in a 1970 fire engine red Pontiac GTO called ″The Judge.″

Ronald Reagan found out about Conte’s pull in the early 1980s, a time when his presidential power and popularity were high.

Conte went to bat for the president and included some aid for the Caribbean that Reagan wanted in an appropriations bill. When Reagan vetoed the bill anyway, a furious Conte led the override charge and got 80 Republicans to vote with him.

″I hope he learns a lesson,″ Conte said after the vote. ″You just don’t have 435 robots here in Congress that are going to vote in lock step.″

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Conte tried to turn over a new leaf in the early 1980s by voting with his Republican president on key issues, something he had never been inclined to do previously. He backed Reagan’s controversial budget cuts and tax package in 1981.

But the honeymoon only lasted a few weeks. Soon he was back to his old self, fighting against the Reagan tide for more human services spending. Conte took to referring to Reagan budget director David Stockman, a former GOP House colleague, as ″the young slasher.″ And he continued his regular bridge game with Reagan’s political adversary, House Speaker Thomas P. ″Tip″ O’Neill Jr., D-Mass.

″Silvio’s like the Pentagon,″ one colleague observed. ″He’s got five sides.″

Conte once referred to the Senate as ″a bunch of fat cats up there raking in the bucks.″ Once during a particularly nasty disagreement with Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., Conte cleared his throat during an Appropriations Committee session and asked if it would be considered out of order to refer to Proxmire as ″a cheap, irresponsible demagogue.″

Once, in fighting against subsidies for beekeepers, Conte said in debate, ″There is an old Scottish song,″ Conte said, ‴I Got a Bee in Ma Bonnet and Ma Honey on Ma Mind.′ Too many beekeepers are running around singing, ’I Got Dead Bees in Ma Bonnet and Federal Money on Ma Mind.‴

O’Neill once said Conte was opposed to pork barrel projects, ″unless Massachusetts gets 50 percent.″

Born Nov. 9, 1921 in Pittsfield, Mass., Conte grew up in that working class city’s Italian-American neighborhood. After serving in the Navy in World War II Conte attended Boston College and its law school and won a seat in the Massachusetts Senate.

In 1958 he comfortably defeated Williams College Professor James MacGregor Burns, biographer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for Congress by promising to bring federal grants and contracts to the district.

For many, Conte was best known in Washington for his love of baseball and the Boston Red Sox. For years he managed the Republican side in the annual congressional baseball game.

During his state Senate tenure Conte married Corinne Duval. They raised four children and spent Conte’s years in Congress shuttling back and forth between Pittsfield and Washington. During those years they amassed substantial holdings of real estate in the Washington area, and two years ago Conte listed his assets at $1.74 million.

Conte had been in treatment for his cancer and in mid-December entered the National Cancer Institute. Within a month, however, the disease showed rapid progression, aides said.

His wife drove him to the hospital on Feb. 1 after he complained of flu- like symptoms and loss of feeling in his left hand. He was operated on that day for removal of a blood clot on the brain, and his office said he was excected to recover.

But he underwent a second operation to remove blood accumulating in the brain on Wednesday and was listed in critical condition.

Conte is survived by his wife and his children, John Xavier Conte; Gayle Fowler; Michelle webb and Silvia Certo.

Funeral arrangements had not been completed. The announcement of Conte’s death from his office ended with the simple statement, ″The staff simply wishes to express our love for a great man.″