Rep. Paxon Will Retire From Politics
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 1998; Page A01
Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), a central figure in the intrigue roiling the Republican House leadership, yesterday stunned his colleagues by announcing he was retiring from politics and abandoning a challenge to his bitter rival, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.).
Paxon's departure, motivated he said by family concerns, postponed what loomed as a divisive election-year power struggle in the GOP hierarchy. It set up what could be an eventual showdown between Armey and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) to succeed Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as speaker of the House.
Paxon's move is the latest in a series of events being driven by the widespread assumption among Republicans that Gingrich will resign next year to seek the GOP nomination for president.
"The possibility of something happening with the speaker is what's got everybody thinking about succession," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (La.), a senior Republican. "That's what's directing all of this."
Livingston -- who last week reversed his decision to leave the House -- declared himself a "Gingrich loyalist," but told reporters yesterday that "I'll throw my hat in the ring" if Gingrich steps down.
Paxon said Gingrich advisers had caused him to believe "categorically" in a Gingrich presidential run, and this was a key factor in his decision last week to try to unseat Armey in December when House Republicans choose their leaders. Just days ago, Paxon was making telephone calls to members to secure their votes in a challenge to Armey. "I obviously thought I had a good chance," Paxon said of his goal to oust Armey and put himself first in line to succeed Gingrich.
Gingrich issued a statement lauding Paxon as "a younger brother to me," but ducked questions about his own intentions. "I want to talk to my closest advisers," Gingrich told reporters. "If they are going to tell all that to Bill, then I want them to talk to me too."
Armey supporters, given an opportunity to take a deep breath, claimed Paxon backed out because he didn't have the votes to mount a credible challenge. "We're doing our little victory dance," said one Armey backer. "He's a guy who would lie to your face and stab you in the back. We're going to miss him."
Armey, who as late as Tuesday was acknowledging that "I reckon someone wants [my] job," issued a one-paragraph statement yesterday saying, "Bill Paxon has had a career he can be proud of -- I wish him well."
Yet another key faction in the churning Republican caucus -- the restive conservative rebels who tried to dump Gingrich last year -- was deflated by the disappearance of a leadership candidate they could live with. Without Paxon, the rebels are "stuck with the status quo for the foreseeable future," Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) acknowledged.
The reformers still don't like Armey, Scarborough added, and, as budget hawks, are suspicious of Livingston, who as an appropriator is "traditionally . . . more interested in spending money."
Paxon's announcement marked the precipitate disappearance from Capitol Hill of the other half of the House GOP's onetime golden couple. Gingrich had seen that Paxon, 43, and his wife, former representative Susan Molinari (N.Y.), had high-profile jobs in the Republican revolution that took over the House in 1994. Molinari retired last August to embark on a CBS broadcasting career.
Paxon said he would serve out his term, but had made no plans beyond that. "You'll find me in the park weekends with my wife and daughter," he said. "I'll never run for office again."
Paxon's prestige among his colleagues derived from his effectiveness as a fund-raiser and as an election strategist who helped carry out Gingrich's 1994 blueprint to take control of the House from the Democrats.
But he ran afoul of Gingrich last July when he and other members of the leadership -- including Armey -- were courted by GOP rebels who sought to oust Gingrich from the speakership.
The rebels charged Gingrich had abandoned conservative principles and bungled several important legislative issues. But the supposed coup fizzled and Paxon was forced to resign his leadership post. Armey, however, infuriated the rebels by denying involvement in the plot.
Armey's "stock dropped," said Scarborough, one of the rebels. "The reformers saw him as a guy who would run for cover the first time a shot was fired."
Since that time, Gingrich has mended fences with the rebels, while Paxon, marginalized from the leadership, was "sort of martyred," said one rebel. The rebels wanted payback against Armey, and gathered around Paxon as a prospective "go-to guy" in the hierarchy, Scarborough said.
Members said the feeling that Gingrich was going to resign in 1999 to run for president, coupled with the party's rules imposing six-year term limits on committee chairmen and the confidence that Republicans would retain control of the House this November, had created a sense of urgency among senior members when the GOP held its retreat near Williamsburg earlier this month.
Paxon said he met with Gingrich in Williamsburg for a 20-minute private conversation and promised to vote for Gingrich as speaker in December but said he "would think it through" before committing to Armey and the rest of the current leadership team.
In all, Paxon said he spent six weeks exploring the possibility of challenging Armey in December. "I never looked at this as 'what's wrong with Dick?' I looked at it as what I can bring."
Meanwhile, Livingston, who as head of the Appropriations Committee was the most powerful chair in the House, had all but decided to retire rather than see his chairmanship taken away by term limits in 2000.
But last week, just as Paxon had concluded he had a viable candidacy for majority leader, Livingston had concluded that staying around one more term could offer a possible run for speaker.
Last Friday, however, Paxon said he "looked at my daughter and decided I cannot do this to her." His decision left Livingston as Armey's lone rival for the speakership.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company