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SENATE STAFFERS SHOP BEFORE AX DROPS

As word spread that the Senate stationery store was discontinuing its discounted stock of gift items, lines of staff members formed at the checkout to take advantage of this endangered perk.

"Fire sale isn't the word for it," said one, his arms loaded with purchases. "It's a feeding frenzy."No longer will Senate aides and journalists be able to buy at cost ashtrays with the Senate seal as Christmas gifts or coffee mugs with pictures of the Capitol.

House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., clamped similar restrictions on his chamber's stationery store.

As Congress agonizes over a series of scandals, lawmakers are hoping to minimize the damage by shedding some longstanding perquisites enjoyed by themselves, their staffs and even lobbyists and the media.

Four House members on Thursday proposed eliminating all taxpayer subsidies for services available on Capitol Hill such as meals, haircuts, printing, stationery and photography.

"The perquisite problem . . . has become the symbol of what is wrong with the Congress," said Rep. William Hughes, D-N.J. "At the very least, we should be charging ourselves . . . what the public would have to pay."

Foley announced last week that he was cutting off free prescription drugs for House members and that the fee they pay to use the House gymnasium would quadruple to $400 a year.

Foley and House Minority Leader Robert Michel, R-Ill., also have appointed a 16-member task force to study the House's internal problems and recommend reforms.

Sensitivity to perks has been on the rise all over town. At the White House on Wednesday, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was forced to defend President Bush's free medical care. In the process, he conceded that members of the White House staff can get free doctor's visits at an in-house medical office.

"It's been a government practice for years, and yes, I think it is appropriate," Fitzwater said.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said the news media should not be immune from scrutiny.

"Everything ought to be under review," said press secretary Walt Riker. "How can you defend the taxpayers paying for (benefits) for multimillion-dollar media corporations? It just doesn't add up."