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Paxon Quits House GOP LeadershipBy John E. Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 1997; Page A01
Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), one of his party's fastest-rising stars, resigned from his House leadership post yesterday as Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) struggled to calm the uproar triggered by disclosures of an aborted attempt to oust him.
A Gingrich protege and one of the speaker's most loyal supporters, Paxon denied that he was part of any maneuvering to force his patron out. He said he resigned when he realized that the speaker had lost "confidence and trust in his team." Paxon is the highest non-elected member of the Republican leadership.
Paxon's move came in the wake of disclosures that House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) had met with dissident lawmakers last week to discuss their plans to force Gingrich out in favor of Paxon. DeLay aides said he was gathering intelligence. Other participants said he appeared to be encouraging them.
The resignation added to the turmoil of a day in which there was a remarkable round of private finger-pointing by allies of various factions within the House leadership about the leaders' complicity in the overthrow scheming. GOP lawmakers huddled on the House floor and in corridors, discussing the machinations and trading reports and rumors.
The intrigue has dominated the attention of leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers alike, just as congressional Republicans are on the verge of achieving their long-cherished goals of passing a tax cut and legislation that would balance the budget by 2002.
Talks with Clinton administration officials on those matters, already complicated by divisions between House and Senate Republicans, are reaching a crucial stage, and many lawmakers and aides said they fear the president could take advantage of the leadership turmoil.
"Obviously we have a fractured leadership team," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).
"It's an absolute public relations disaster," said a House Republican budget aide. "These guys couldn't have picked a worse time for this. Clinton is a very smart guy and knows how to exploit every weakness."
At the White House, aides jokingly compared the events in the House to the upheaval in Cambodia. "That all sounds like an internal House matter. I categorically deny that anyone is gleefully watching those actions," White House press secretary Michael McCurry told reporters with a smirk.
But House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) said this would prove to be nothing more than a momentary snag. "This is like an Indiana Jones movie," Kasich said, referring to the popular adventure series. "I mean, you've got arrows, you've got boulders, you've got poisonous snakes, you've got everything -- but we're going to get there. It's just part of the process."
House Republicans elected in 1994 gathered behind closed doors to hear classmate Rep. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) give his account of how GOP leaders encouraged the dissidents' efforts against Gingrich. Lawmakers recalled Graham saying that last week's meeting with dissidents was requested by DeLay and that the whip urged quick action to replace Gingrich with Paxon as speaker. Graham said he believed House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) backed out because he would not become speaker, the lawmakers said.
"He went through it point-by-point," said one lawmaker. "Others who were present at the meeting with DeLay nodded in agreement at the most sensational aspects of it."
DeLay has declined to comment on the meeting, and while Armey had denied any involvement, in a taped interview for broadcast Sunday on Texas television, he acknowledged having attended meetings. "I met with that group of people two times," the Dallas Morning News quoted him as saying. "Once to hear what they thought they wanted to do and once for me to tell them they ought not to do it and that I would do everything I could to stop it."
Speculation about further resignations was such that DeLay, elected to a two-year term by his GOP colleagues, felt the need to issue a statement saying he did not intend to quit. "Rumors to the contrary are not only false they are malicious and I wish they would cease," he said.
Nonetheless, lawmakers who attended the weekly meeting of the whip's organization said DeLay appeared agitated.
Gingrich responded to all inquiries about the matter with a resolute "no comment." Gingrich aides said that after a series of meetings Wednesday night and yesterday morning with DeLay, Armey and House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio), the speaker was confident of his lieutenants' allegiance.
The speaker had no interest in reconstructing the events of the last several days, the aides said, adding that as a historian Gingrich said he knew that the truth of some situations may never be known.
In a letter to Gingrich, Paxon, whom the speaker had asked to preside at leadership meetings and to oversee long-range planning, said he was leaving the post because his trust and word "have been cast in doubt [and] it is clear that I can no longer be an asset to your team."
Gingrich was prepared to ask for Paxon to quit, but before he could, the New York lawmaker offered to resign Wednesday night in a meeting with Gingrich, DeLay and Armey, according to congressional officials. Gingrich accepted the resignation yesterday morning.
"I was not pushed," Paxon said in an interview. "There was no conversation or signal that I should resign. . . . It was clearly, in my view, a question of when the speaker loses confidence and trust in his team, I can only respond as the appointed member of that team, that I don't think he deserves to have people around him that he doesn't have confidence in."
Responding to Paxon with a "Dear Bill" letter, Gingrich praised his work as head of the GOP House campaign committee from 1993 to 1996. With Gingrich plotting the overall strategy, Paxon directed the recruiting and financing of the candidates who helped give the party its first House majority since Paxon's birth in 1954, and then saw a GOP majority reelected for the first time since 1928. In all, Paxon had a hand in the election of nearly half of the chamber's 228 Republicans.
A tireless cheerleader for Gingrich and the GOP agenda, Paxon helped direct both the internal and public campaigns to reelect Gingrich as speaker earlier this year before the ethics case against him had been resolved. Paxon aides have maintained that he was trying to stop dissident lawmakers from seeking Gingrich's ouster last week. "This incident has been grossly misconstrued," his statement said.
Many House Republicans said the incident was an embarrassment. "We Republicans made a commitment that we would rule like a majority party," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). "We can't do that if we continue like this. We're acting like children. It's shameful, shameful."
The turmoil drowned out the House Republicans' effort to drum up public support for their budget and tax plan. Gingrich and other House leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder at a midday outdoor news conference to highlight the benefits in their tax plan for small businesses. But the throng of reporters appeared interested only in the Paxon matter, and Gingrich bolted without answering questions.
Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) boasted recently that they might wrap up negotiations with the administration on a final budget and tax plan by this weekend. But House and Senate Republicans remain seriously divided over key tax and Medicare issues, and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) warned that the budget and tax talks could drag on to September.
White House officials also expressed some anxiety. "Whatever amusement you might have is balanced by concern," said one senior administration official.
From a strictly political point of view, an official said, Clinton is helped by GOP infighting, and would probably be helped by refusing to negotiate with the Republicans over competing tax cut proposals. But Clinton, this adviser said, believes that in the end this would be self-defeating, because it would vitiate the recent budget deal and deny him what he hopes will be a major second-term achievement.
Staff writers Peter Baker, Dan Balz, John F. Harris and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.