House Leadership Challenge Weighed
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 30, 1998; Page A18
House Republican conservatives, embittered over the budget deal approved by Congress last week, are considering the possibility of trying to oust their leaders at the party's post-election organizing meeting in mid-November, conservative lawmakers said.
While some sources said conservatives may challenge Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at the Nov. 18 meeting, several agreed that the principal target would likely be Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), believed by conservatives to have betrayed them in a failed "coup" against Gingrich last year.
Lawmakers and Republican staff members said the major hurdle facing the would-be rebels, however, is the absence of a candidate with the stature to mount a credible challenge. Several colleagues pointed to two-term Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), the pro football Hall of Famer who has been an occasional critic of Gingrich.
But Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who described Largent as "one of the few people [able] to pull it off," said Largent told him recently he was reluctant to spend the extra time in Washington that a leadership post would require.
Largent chief of staff Terry Allen said his boss "has no plans to run for the leadership," adding that Largent is spending his time raising money for GOP candidates in the Nov. 3 midterm elections. Largent declined to be interviewed for this article.
Despite a general reluctance to move, however, several members warned that the leaders were on trial. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the ringleaders of the 1997 coup attempt, described the elections as looming "huge" in the leadership's future.
"I'm not jumping up and down and raising hell," he said. "If we pick up 20 seats and three or four in the Senate, that would be sufficient to continue the current course. But if we don't do very well, people will start looking around."
Largent, LaHood and Graham belong to the 73-member class of 1994 -- many of them staunch conservatives -- that swept Gingrich, Armey and the GOP to power in the House after 40 years in the minority.
The leadership has had a periodically stormy relationship with the rambunctious sophomores, capped by the near-miss 1997 coup, organized after a series of perceived missteps by Gingrich, including an ethics investigation into his fund-raising practices. Conservatives believe Armey betrayed them by first approving the coup, then claiming he never supported the rebels.
A resurgence of rancor toward the entire leadership erupted over the past few weeks during negotiations on a $500 billion spending bill that passed overwhelmingly Oct. 20 as the last act of the expiring 105th Congress. Opposing Republicans condemned the bill as a pork-barrel monstrosity that included $20 billion in sometimes dubiously defined "emergency spending" and that spent part of the year's budget surplus on federal programs sought by the Clinton administration.
"There are a lot of people who were very, very disenchanted with our exit strategy," sophomore Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said, "and felt we could have done a much better job holding the line on the federal budget."
Graham was more charitable, noting that the House leadership got "double-teamed" by the administration and a Senate reluctant to sign on to House conservatives' strategies, but he criticized the leadership's "packaging and marketing" as "offensive to conservatives."
"What I was looking for was an acknowledgment that we had to make the deal to get out of town," Graham said. "But everybody wanted to claim a win-win, and it wasn't a win-win for principles." The dispute still festers among many conservatives, especially after Gingrich chided them on the House floor as the "perfectionist caucus."
But several members noted there is a big difference between discontent and action: "I'm open to voting for somebody else. These people haven't done anything to win over my confidence," said one sophomore who asked not to be quoted by name. "But I'm not going to jump out on a limb and lead a revolution against them, because the last time it was fruitless."
The showdown, if there is one, is likely to occur during the Republicans' organizing meeting, when members get their committee assignments, vote on party rules and select their leaders. Several sources noted that the meeting occurs just two weeks after the elections, making it difficult for any insurgent group to organize the type of revolution that would have a good chance of succeeding.
"If it's 'Let's get together and draft someone,' that's a formula for a losing effort," said one leadership aide, adding that hard-core conservatives overestimate the strength of their voting bloc. "They've convinced themselves if they meet in a phone booth, they think they're in a convention hall."
If they fail to identify a leadership candidate, conservatives may plan to offer rules changes at the post-election meeting that would weaken the leadership's power, such as making subcommittee chairmanships subject to approval by the full GOP conference.
Most lawmakers hoping to move up the leadership ladder work for a year or two establishing a political action committee to dole out funds to candidates and traveling across the country to fund-raisers.
Gingrich has raised at least $8 million for incumbents since 1997, according to his campaign, while Armey has provided $5 million. House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio), also identified as a potential target for an ouster, has tripled his PAC fund-raising to nearly $1 million over the past two years.
LaHood said he thought Largent "decided he did not want to make the sacrifices it takes to be a leader," but Largent is one of the few rank-and-file members out in the hustings getting to know challengers and otherwise acting like an aspirant.
Allen said Largent was instrumental last summer in forming the New Conservative Leadership Fund, a "multi-candidate committee" of 20 conservative GOP challengers in competitive races. The committee differs from a leadership PAC in that each candidate is entitled to one-twentieth of all the money in the fund. Allen said Largent has raised $300,000 for the committee, and has raised money on behalf of other candidates.
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