Gingrich Moves to Protect His Post
By Ceci Connolly and Juliet Eilperin
After the GOP's unexpected losses Tuesday, Rep. Bob Livingston (La.), who has aggressively marketed himself as a likely successor to Gingrich, suggested in a telephone conversation with the speaker that he consider stepping down. Sources familiar with the call said the Appropriations Committee chairman has preferred not to challenge Gingrich but now may be receptive to the idea.
A handful of lesser-known Republicans, including Reps. David M. McIntosh (Ind.) and Steve Largent (Okla.), also were testing the waters yesterday as demoralized Republicans weighed a shake-up in their leadership ranks when they meet in two weeks to organize for the 106th Congress. Even if Gingrich escapes without a challenger, members said, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) or Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio) might be targeted.
"This was a stunning victory for Democrats and a major defeat for Republicans," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "I can't believe we will keep the same team. Most members want to see a change in the leadership team."
By the numbers, Tuesday's elections produced a relatively minor shift in the House's balance of power. Five Republican incumbents were defeated, while Democrats made an apparent net gain of five seats. But for the GOP leaders, who were giddily predicting double-digit gains just a few weeks ago, the election resulted in a dizzying day of finger-pointing.
"Last night was not a pretty sight," Rep. John Linder, the Georgia Republican handpicked by Gingrich to head the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said in a conference call with GOP lawmakers, according to several participants. "We're going to have a very tough two years."
Gingrich faces the twin challenges of first calming the roiling Republican waters and then crafting a plan for governing with just an 11-vote edge. If the Democrats win as expected in the one House race that is not yet final, the next Congress will have 223 Republicans, 211 Democrats and one independent which means the Republicans would have the most tenuous grip on the House since 1955.
Publicly, Gingrich deflected speculation that his speakership is in jeopardy, saying that the grumblers in the GOP are "the people who would in fact take the party to a narrower base with fewer members."
But behind the scenes, he spent much of the day listening to distraught Republicans vent their frustration over an election they had believed would add substantially to their numbers, giving them a clear mandate to pursue the impeachment of President Clinton.
"When you have no agenda, you don't have any issues," Boehner said in a call with GOP leaders, according to participants. "And when you don't have any issues, you don't have a message."
Gingrich was not the only Republican working the phones; Livingston and McIntosh began testing their candidacies while Gingrich lieutenants, such as Armey and Rep. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.), tried to gauge the level of discontent. Dunn was also named as a potential rival to the top leaders.
In a party fraught with ideological tensions, one point virtually every faction agreed on was that a high-ranking Republican is likely to pay the price for an Election Day that fell far below expectations.
"There are serious questions we have to be asking ourselves," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). "We've got to reorganize ourselves in the next Congress."
Republicans across the ideological spectrum indicated that they were hungry for new leaders. "I believe we have a messenger problem," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the sophomores who participated in an aborted coup against Gingrich last summer. "You don't necessarily need to replace Newt. You've got to have some new blood in leadership."
GOP moderates such as Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) and Constance A. Morella (Md.) also said that they were open to replacing some of their party's leaders.
"We absolutely have to explore whether leadership changes are needed," said Morella, who did not support Gingrich for speaker in the opening vote of the 105th Congress.
Gingrich's most dangerous day may come not in this month's GOP organizational meeting but in January, when the 106th Congress takes up his reelection as its first order of business. Former representative Robert Walker (R-Penn.) warned his friend Gingrich on election night of a scenario in which he could lose that vote.
Walker, a parliamentary expert, said it is possible that if even a handful of Republicans defect, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) could snatch away the speakership. "It would be an act of futility and stupidity, but can someone conjure up that scenario? Yes," Walker said. "It will simply demonstrate that this group is not prepared to govern."
Some of the speaker's critics, however, noted that Gingrich could avoid this outcome if he simply acknowledged his predicament and relinquished the speakership.
"I don't think a bloodbath is in anybody's best interest," said Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), another participant in the aborted coup. "By the end of the week, we'll know whether there's going to be a bloodbath or a leader steps down."
One immediate outcome from the election appeared certain yesterday: Linder will have to fight to retain his job as NRCC chairman.
Already, Gingrich appears to be acceding to one demand: that the NRCC job become an elected, rather than appointed, position. The speaker, according to Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who will take over the influential Rules Committee in the next Congress, said yesterday he supports that change even though it would weaken him.
Republicans opened the 1998 election year with hopes of expanding their slim majority in the House. History was on their side; since World War II, the president's party has lost an average of 27 House seats in every non-presidential election.
But Democrats got an early start raising money, recruiting candidates who fit their districts and trumpeting populist themes such as reforming managed care and protecting Social Security. But by August, when Clinton confessed to an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, Republicans gained new hope that they could pick up as many as 30 seats.
In the end, the electorate shrugged off Clinton's sexual misconduct and appeared to reward more Democratic candidates for its own good fortune.
Now that the election is over, lawmakers are focusing their attention on the House leadership contests, which will occur between Nov. 18 and 20. Even as Gingrich moved to consolidate his power, many Republicans spent yesterday handicapping the competition.
"I would argue that Steve Largent is more conservative than Newt Gingrich, but he doesn't come across as strident in his approach," Rep. Mark Edward Souder (Ind.) said.
Several members praised Livingston, a conservative who has worked with both moderate Republicans and Democrats as he has crafted the government's annual spending bills over the past four years. "Bob Livingston's a person whose stock is going up tremendously in my book," Graham said.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.), who has helped spearhead Livingston's internal political machine, spoke with the Louisianan yesterday and said Livingston repeated that he does not wish to challenge Gingrich directly.
But Packard added, "If Newt Gingrich is not reelected speaker, whether it is in our conference or on the floor of the House, I think Bob Livingston should be his replacement."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company