Desire for New Face Puts Armey at Risk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 1998; Page A16
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey is in danger of losing his post because Republicans appear hungry for a more telegenic figure who can better forge coalitions across the ideological divisions within the party.
By many accounts, the rumpled Texan has done a reasonable job with the nuts and bolts of the majority leader's post, managing the chamber's daily schedule and deciding what bills come to the floor for a vote.
But in the wake of last week's disappointing election results for the GOP, many members are beginning to wonder whether keeping the trains running is enough, and whether the party could use a more appealing face for public consumption. Although they offer different points of view on crucial issues, Armey's two challengers -- Reps. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) and Steve Largent (Okla.) -- say they would offer just that face.
In a letter to colleagues, Dunn promised yesterday that she "will serve as a fresh face for the party, delivering a clear message that will build broad support for our vision from all Americans."
For his part, Largent has pledged to "heal the alienation that currently exists" between politicians in Washington and serve as a "believable messenger" to voters.
One senior House Republican said the ascension of Dunn, the most senior woman in the GOP House hierarchy, and the election of Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), who is black, in another leadership contest could show voters that Republicans are committed to more inclusion.
"I could see us with a new face on our conference -- a new face that reflects a lot more of America, with . . . Jennifer Dunn, J.C. Watts and others," he said. "It probably sends a good message to the country."
Armey wouldn't discuss complaints about his performance on television, and his allies say that's beside the point. They say that Armey, a strong conservative, deserves reelection in party meetings next week because of his work on behalf of the GOP majority, doing everything from helping craft the "Contract With America" in 1994 to moving critical education initiatives on the floor this year.
"Dick is saying, 'I understand things didn't work out well the other day, but . . . we delivered on a lot of things,' " said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), an Armey ally.
With Armey and his challengers busy cajoling colleagues and counting votes, the House appeared mostly quiet yesterday, except on the critical question of impeaching President Clinton. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (Ill.) met behind closed doors with other committee Republicans, and GOP sources said they discussed whether to call any witnesses in the coming hearings other than independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Committee Republicans also received a memorandum from their staff, offering "positive points" about the controversial independent counsel. The memo emphasized Starr's strong reputation in the legal community and was intended as a response to Democratic criticism of his performance as independent counsel, sources added.
In the wake of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's decision last week to step down, the GOP leadership transition continued to dominate members' attention. GOP sources said Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) is in line to succeed Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) as chairman of the Appropriations Committee after Livingston, as expected, becomes speaker early next year.
Sources said another prominent Republican, Rep. Bill Thomas (Calif.), is considering getting into the race for majority leader as a compromise choice.
Meanwhile, Armey received a bit of good news when Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.) announced that he would endorse the current majority leader instead of challenging him.
After calling members, McKeon said, he discovered that Armey had secured more votes than he had expected and that many expressed concern that the party needed an experienced floor manager, with just a six-vote majority starting next year. "I've never had a complaint with the way he's run the floor," McKeon said. "What makes me think I can do a better job than Dick Armey?"
But Armey continues to have trouble winning over key factions he has alienated over the past few years, including younger conservatives and an obscure group known as the House Depot Caucus.
Some rebellious conservatives continue to smart over what they describe as Armey's deception -- encouraging their attempt to remove the speaker last year only to then inform Gingrich of the junior members' plans. "There were wounds that never really healed coming out of the coup attempt," said Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.).
Other lawmakers have different motivations for opposing Armey. Several Republicans have military depots in their districts that employ large numbers of workers, and Congress and the Pentagon have tussled over to what extent the federal government can privatize these operations.
Last summer, members of this so-called House Depot Caucus fashioned a compromise, allowing half the operations to be privatized and keeping the other half under the government. When an effort was made to undo the deal on the floor, these lawmakers were furious with Armey for backing it.
"On the first ballot, it's safe to say my boss will not be supporting the majority leader," said an aide to one Republican member with a depot in his district.
"Politicians have long memories," added Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who is supporting fellow sophomore Largent for the majority leader's post. "People are going to be looking for new faces with new ideas and new energy. . . . We need someone who can communicate our message on TV."
Staff writer Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
House Leadership Contests
Here is a look at the leadership contests in the House of Representatives.
* Speaker of the House: As the third-highest constitutional officer in the nation after the president and the vice president, the speaker presides over the 434 other members and ultimately shapes the congressional agenda. His ceremonial duties include gaveling the House into session in the morning, swearing in new members and welcoming the president when he delivers the State of the Union address. Of course, the speaker also has final say on just about everything, from where C-SPAN's cameras are aimed to what bills make it to the Senate. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) is the only lawmaker running for the post.
* Majority leader: This lawmaker oversees the House's floor operation, determining when votes occur and what bills are considered when the chamber is in session. Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), the current majority leader, faces a challenge from Republican Reps. Steve Largent (Okla.) and Jennifer Dunn (Wash.).
* Majority whip: The whip is responsible for making sure the party's members fall in line during key votes -- hence the name. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the current majority whip who is running unopposed for reelection, has 65 members who canvass colleagues to gauge their sentiments on important bills. The whip is the key intelligence officer for the leadership, telling them whether legislation will fail or pass.
* Conference chairman: This lawmaker's post is one of the least-defined, and its occupant does not wield the power of patronage the way other leaders do. The conference chairman frequently focuses on member services, distributing bill summaries and the agenda to lawmakers on a regular basis as well as providing background information on issues ranging from U.S. airstrikes to drafting a constituent letter. This leader also helps steer the party message, and runs the weekly closed meetings in which lawmakers debate their most pressing legislative issues. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is facing a challenge from Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.).
* National Republican Congressional Committee chairman: The NRCC chairman is, above all, a fund-raiser, making sure House Republicans have the money to wage campaigns. This lawmaker attends the weekly House leadership meetings and consults closely with the speaker on how to plot strategy for each election, from grass-roots efforts to television commercials. Republicans used to elect a member to this post until they won the majority in 1994, when Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) made it an appointed position and selected fellow Georgia Republican Rep. John Linder as chairman. Linder must now defend himself in an election against Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).
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