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Vote This Week on a House GOP Post May Reflect Discontent With Gingrich

By John E. Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 1997; Page A06

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is not running for anything this week, but he will be much on the minds of some of his 227 Republican colleagues as they cast their votes for a relatively obscure leadership post.

Many restive House Republicans are seizing on Wednesday's vote for vice chairman of the House Republican Conference as an opportunity to signal their unhappiness with a leadership they complain is not listening to them and not adequately communicating the party's message. Some are calling the race a referendum on Gingrich's stewardship.

The dissident candidate is Rep. Jim Nussle (Iowa), who is squared off against Rep. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.). The contest is to replace Rep. Susan Molinari (N.Y.), who is resigning to become a weekend anchor for CBS News.

"A Nussle victory would be seen as a statement that we're not pleased with the direction we're going," said Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.). "He is trying to ride the tide of the current sentiment toward the leadership."

It is a position that already has helped Nussle overcome Dunn's earlier start and better organization. GOP lawmakers said the race is likely to be closer than many of them had anticipated, and predicted that even if Nussle loses, his vote total could send a powerful message.

Nussle said his candidacy for the fifth-highest leadership post is fueled by discontent with the job GOP leaders are doing. "I was very frustrated in my inability to answer questions from my constituents about why we're not better at communicating our agenda," he said in an interview. "It's not that we don't have one, but they don't perceive we have one."

He also complained about what he called "mountaintop decision-making, where the tablets are brought down and the masses are told, 'This is where we're going.' "

At the same time, he said he is not running against Gingrich or the leadership. "There is nothing personal about this," he said. "This is not about one leader or the leadership."

But congressional leadership elections are curious affairs, a mix of the intrigue of the Medicis and the popularity contests of high school. They are fought at sometimes conflicting levels, often pitting personal friendships and political aspirations against ideological alliances and party goals. Decided by secret ballots, they can yield surprising results.

The contest between Dunn, who is House Republican Conference secretary, and Nussle is complicated by some lawmakers' belief that it is important for the party to promote a woman as the GOP seeks to reach out to female voters as part of its effort to build on its congressional majorities and win the White House in 2000.

"A lot of people believe we need to get our act together, but they see a vote for Jennifer Dunn as a good thing for the Republican Party," said a southern conservative who has been critical of Gingrich and has not publicly declared his support in the race. "This is not a great vehicle to send a message."

It is a point Dunn stressed in an interview. "I bring the voice of a woman to a group that needs to hear what's happening out there among groups of women," she said. "It's really important for a woman to move up in leadership. . . . I bring a softer edge to the conservative message."

In her three House terms, Dunn has worked on many issues designed to appeal to women. She pushed to add money for child care in legislation overhauling the nation's welfare system, sponsored measures to let women who do not work outside the home establish Individual Retirement Accounts, and sought to direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to focus some of its weightless research on ovarian and breast cancer. Recently, she has participated in several projects to highlight the GOP tax-cut bill's benefits for women.

Dunn also has played the inside game well. She has used her prowess as a fund-raiser to help colleagues, a timeworn way of currying their favor. In last year's campaigns, she contributed $46,000 from her political action committee to House colleagues and GOP challengers and gave another $113,500 to GOP candidates from her personal $1.2 million campaign fund.

In contrast to the openly ambitious Dunn's steady rise, Nussle's relatively brief House career already has had its share of peaks and valleys.

In fact, the race marks a return to the limelight for Nussle. Narrowly elected to the House in 1990 at age 30, Nussle quickly became a leader of the embryonic Republican revolution. He attacked the Democratic leadership and pushed to cut congressional salaries by 5 percent each year the budget was not balanced.

He may be best remembered for delivering a House speech with a paper bag over his head in 1991 to protest Democratic leaders' refusal to disclose the numbers of lawmakers who had overdrafts at the House bank. Three years later, Gingrich put Nussle in charge of the transition to GOP rule in the House after the party took control of the chamber for the first time in four decades.

But Nussle seemed to fade from view. Widely seen as the likely new head of the GOP House campaign committee, he was passed over by Gingrich last year. Earlier this year, he turned down an invitation to join an expanded House GOP leadership.

While Nussle's friends in the House mention his loner's temperament and personal difficulties -- he went through a divorce during the last Congress -- Nussle himself said his lower profile was the natural result of his success in managing the transition to majority rule.

Looming over all this are simmering concerns about Gingrich. Much of the discontent was quieted by the easy House passage of a bill cutting taxes last month, just before a recess when lawmakers could go home and take a victory lap.

"The tax cuts came along at a great time -- it gave us something to go home and feel good about," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent critic of the leadership.

And with Gingrich and other leaders engaged in crucial negotiations over legislation cutting taxes and spending to implement the balanced-budget agreement, uneasy House Republicans seem willing to see how that process works out before actively challenging the leadership.

"We're going to sit back and wait and see," said Scarborough.

Meanwhile, the candidates will be working right up until the balloting, calling on colleagues and asking for their votes. The halls of Congress can be a particularly tough precinct. Lawmakers are adept at telling colleagues what they want to hear, but words that sound like commitments may not always be what they seem.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has held more Senate leadership positions than any other lawmaker, once said he was wary of colleagues who told him: "You don't have to worry about me." "I never counted them for me," he said.

And even those he counted did not always deliver. One year, when the number of votes he received in the leader's race did not quite match the commitments he had collected, Byrd kept the handwritten ballots to determine who had not carried through.

Later, when he stepped down as Democratic leader and then-Sen. George J. Mitchell (Maine) was elected to succeed him, Byrd moved that the ballots be burned.

IN PROFILE

REP. JENNIFER DUNN (R-WASH.)

Born: July 29, 1941, in Seattle

Education: BA, Stanford University, 1963

Career highlights:

U.S. House, 1993-present

Committee: Ways and Means

Chairman, Washington state Republican Party, 1980-92

Section supervisor, King County, Wash., Assessments Department, 1978-80

Systems engineer, IBM Corp., 1964-69

Family: Divorced, two children

REP. JIM NUSSLE (R-IOWA)

Born: June 27, 1960, in Des Moines

Education: BA, Luther College, 1983; JD, Drake University, 1985

Career highlights:

U.S. House, 1991-present

Committees: Budget, Ways and Means

County attorney, Delaware County, Iowa, 1986-90

Practicing attorney

Family: Divorced, two children

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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