Gephardt Works Tirelessly to Take Back House
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 1999; Page A1
In "An Even Better Place," his solemn new book about 21st century America, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) complains repeatedly about the major threat to democracy: extreme partisanship. "It is essential for partisan differences to be put aside at times for the sake of compromise," Gephardt writes. "Otherwise, nothing can ever be done."
For Gephardt, though, this year does not seem to be one of those times.
The 12-term St. Louis congressman has a reputation for blandness, but these days he seems like a man possessed. Ever since he decided in February not to run for president, Gephardt has been on an intense mission to regain Democratic control of the House and take over as speaker, working feverishly to raise money and recruit candidates, focusing his energy almost exclusively on the 2000 elections. And as House Republicans have struggled to govern with their fragile six-seat majority, Gephardt has shown little inclination to compromise across party lines. So nothing much has gotten done.
Instead, Gephardt has quietly but effectively united most House Democrats behind an unabashedly partisan agenda, a kind of Democratic version of the "Contract With America" that helped the GOP take over the House in 1994. Using arcane House rules, he also has launched a confrontational strategy designed to force Republicans to choose between addressing the issues on that Democratic agenda -- HMO reform, campaign finance reform, gun control, the minimum wage, school construction funds -- or paying a severe political price in 2000.
The strategy has infuriated Republicans, who accuse Gephardt of obstructing the House so Democrats can campaign against a "do-nothing Congress" next year. It also has raised some hackles at the White House, where a legacy-minded President Clinton has asked Congress to make this summer a "season of progress." Now that bigger-than-expected budget surpluses have renewed hopes for a major Medicare or Social Security deal and Senate Republicans have reluctantly agreed to vote on Democratic health maintenance organization proposals to end a high-profile stalemate, pressure may mount on Gephardt to help make things happen in the House.
But Gephardt's aides say he has learned some hard lessons about life in the minority: It's crucial to stay unified. It's crucial to have a coherent message and clear priorities.
And most of all, it's a lot better to be in the majority.
"Every conversation with Dick starts and ends with regaining control of the House," said one Gephardt aide. "We've learned that we just can't affect the agenda as a minority."
The immediate result has been gridlock in the House. But many Democrats believe the ultimate result could be a national revulsion against "Republican extremism," easing the way for a Democratic majority in the House and a presidency for Vice President Gore.
"Dick is hanging tough," said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), a staunch Gephardt ally. "He's saying: Here's our agenda. If the Republicans want to help us pass it, great. If not, Americans are going to notice in 2000. And we'll pass it when we're in the majority."
So when Republicans voted down tough gun control measures last month -- as Democrats chanted "Six seats! Six seats!" -- Gephardt led the fight to kill the entire bill rather than pass more modest restrictions. Similarly, Democrats have vowed to scuttle a Republican HMO reform bill that is not as broad as their own, instead of trying to work out a compromise. Gephardt's aides say he has initiated all but one of his sporadic meetings with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), but nobody seems to believe he is making much of an effort to reach out.
"It's pretty obvious what they're doing, and they're pretty candid about it when they talk to us," said House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). "They want this to be a do-nothing Congress. They're running for 2000."
Gephardt certainly is running for 2000; there are "Speaker Gephardt" signs posted around his office. He recently sent an aide to find a copy of "Apollo 13," so he can show his caucus the scene where the mission director announces: "Failure is not an option." He has already raised $4 million for Democrats this year, cramming his schedule with fund-raisers, candidate meetings and "phone time" to dial for dollars. On a recent Monday, for instance, he spent 15 hours in four cities pumping cash into his members' coffers.
Gephardt also has taken full control of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, installing the loyal but inexperienced Kennedy as chairman and a top aide, David Plouffe, as executive director. And he has forged a closer relationship with longtime rival Gore, endorsing him early, campaigning for him in Iowa, meeting him monthly for lunch. Gephardt knows he has little chance of becoming speaker if Gore loses big, and Gore aides are eager to tie GOP front-runner George W. Bush to congressional Republicans.
With his flat baritone voice and his TV weatherman face, Gephardt has never been known as an electric presence. But when he describes his preoccupation with 2000, he suddenly enters football coach mode: Democrats are on the 1-yard line, and he's focused on the end zone.
"We've got to get up and do the hard work every day," says Gephardt, 58, who joined the Democratic leadership in 1989 after an unsuccessful presidential campaign. "The push-ups and sit-ups. The blocking and tackling. The practice. Day by day. . . . We can't let down."
Gephardt has always been an enigma of sorts on Capitol Hill, an ambitious former Eagle Scout and a dedicated homebody, a remarkable listener but a mediocre glad-hander. He does not socialize much with fellow lawmakers; he spends what little free time he has with his wife, Jane, and their three grown children. His book is full of idealistic gushing about family life; for example, his earnest recollection of reading Dr. Seuss to his children: "Truth be told, Jane and I enjoyed those stories almost as much as our kids; we'd laugh and laugh about the antics of those crazy characters."
In the political arena, though, Gephardt can be a cold-eyed pragmatist. He came to Congress in 1977 as an antiabortion centrist, representing the district at the geographical center of America; he ran for president in 1988 as an abortion-rights liberal. Now he is seen as a moderate consensus-builder, smoothing frictions in his caucus between New Democrats and the traditional left.
It is still a fractious caucus: Conservatives were furious when he created a new top leadership post for liberal Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), while liberals were angry when he failed to stop Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) from watering down the recent gun control bill. But Gephardt's cajolery helped keep Democrats in lockstep during the president's impeachment and most other big issues this year.
Gephardt is not a Newt Gingrich-style screamer, or even much of an arm twister. He tends to read the caucus as much as lead it; he has expanded his "leadership team" to include almost a third of the Democratic legislators. When he got a group of members lost on a recent tour of the Library of Congress dome, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) shouted, "So much for leadership!" Gephardt just laughed. It's hard to imagine Gingrich laughing at that.
Some critics snicker at the lengths to which Gephardt will go to accommodate his rank and file, and even his aides concede he would have a much harder time keeping Democrats in line in the majority. But many Republicans are grudgingly impressed at his tactical successes.
"Dick has the Democrats sitting on their hands, making sure nothing happens, and he's very effective in that regard," said Bill Paxon, a former Republican House leader who is advising Hastert from the private sector. "He can see the brass ring, and it's hard to blame him for wanting to grab it. But I have to say, it's pretty galling to hear him, of all people, complain about all this terrible partisanship."
When Gephardt handed the speaker's gavel to Hastert, another modulated midwesterner, he pledged to end the partisan hostility that had marked his relationship with Gingrich (R-Ga.). But while relations between Gephardt and Hastert are less volatile, they have been no more productive.
So now Gephardt is pushing a new strategy. When Democrats controlled the House, many pledged never to sign "discharge petitions," which can force votes on bills over the leadership's objections. But in the minority, Gephardt has persuaded them to ditch those pledges and is using discharge petitions to lay out an agenda. He has gathered 202 signatures for a campaign finance reform petition and 180 for a patients' rights petition. He plans similar efforts for gun control measures, a minimum wage increase, a massive school construction initiative and a plan to fund 100,000 new teachers.
It's unlikely Gephardt will get the 218 signatures needed to force those issues to the floor. But Democrats don't seem concerned. Polls suggest voters care about all those issues and trust Democrats more than Republicans to address them. Even if the petitions fail, Democrats can use them as a platform in 2000.
"It took us a while to figure out how to be in the minority, but Dick has it just right," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "It's not our responsibility to legislate anymore. . . . Right now, the differences between the two parties are so great, it doesn't make sense for us to compromise. We'll show where we stand, and let the people decide."
It's not just about grabbing power, Gephardt says. He believes the Democrats lost the House in 1994 because they forgot they were supposed to stand for something more than staying in the majority. Gephardt grew up wearing hand-me-downs and taking the bus. His father drove a milk truck; his mother worked as a legal secretary. When his son battled cancer as a child, Gephardt saw the pain of families facing similar ordeals with no health insurance.
This, Gephardt says, is why he's intent on taking back the House: He wants to help working people, and if the GOP won't do it in 1999, Democrats will in 2001. Elections, he says, are about sharp distinctions, even if governing is about compromise.
"Yes, we want to take back the House, but not just for the sake of winning," Gephardt said. "We have some things we want to do, and we think people are going to want us to do them. . . . If you don't have the substance, you're not going to win anyway."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company