Frenzied Lobbying Precedes GOP Voting
By Juliet Eilperin
Even as he's talking, Watts's eyes widen, and he motions frantically to an aide who has been entertaining Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes on another line for several minutes. "Fred!" he cries out in a horse whisper; the aide nods reassuringly. There's still time to woo the conservative pundit, whose views are closely monitored by some House Republicans.
Watts and other hopefuls will find out whether their frenzied lobbying pays off this morning, when the 223 incoming GOP members of Congress meet behind closed doors to pick their new leaders. While Bob Livingston (La.) has sewed up the votes to succeed Newt Gingrich as House speaker, the fate of other leaders – including Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) – remained very much in doubt yesterday.
Following the party's disappointing election results two weeks ago, there's been no shortage of ideas about what's needed to revitalize congressional Republicans. Conservatives say party leaders must return to a more forceful message of tax cuts and other longtime GOP themes, while moderates say the party needs to take the hard edge off its image. Many of the leadership challengers themselves gripe about the lack of any coherent message from the GOP congressional hierarchy.
But in the end, lawmakers say, today's secret balloting will turn less on such grand themes and more on mundane, garden-variety political factors: networking, personal favors and superior organizational skills aimed at lining up the necessary votes.
"It's very retail. It's very personal," said Preston Gates lobbyist Werner Brandt, a former senior House aide. "Members want to know how you are going to accommodate them."
Handicapping the key contests remained hazardous. Armey was fighting to save his job against Reps. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) and Steve Largent (Okla.). Although he has alienated assorted GOP factions with his brusque approach, Armey was benefiting from the apparent failure of either challenger to develop broad backing across the GOP caucus. Some members were still trying to draft Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) into the race.
Meanwhile, Watts claimed he had amassed enough votes to defeat Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) as chairman of the Republican Conference, who chairs the regular House GOP meetings and develops the party's message. Boehner aides predictably disputed this estimate, and lawmakers expect the race to be close.
Usually leadership races last for at least a year, perhaps two, giving lawmakers ample time to line up the necessary votes. Indeed, Livingston greased his likely ascension by traveling the country on behalf of his colleagues, doling out campaign funds to allies in case Gingrich decided to step down.
Armey has spent much of the past year trying to damp down discontent with his leadership, using the powers of incumbency to woo unlikely supporters. Sources said he has lined up support, for instance, from moderate Mark Foley (Fla.) by vowing to help Foley obtain a seat on the Ways and Means Committee; Armey also personally intervened to block a Wall Street magnate from running ads criticizing Foley for his support of the sugar industry.
But for others, the battle to get into leadership has been more seat-of-the-pants, with the normal timetables for even junior posts accelerated because of the GOP's setback at the polls and Gingrich's surprise resignation. And in this compact campaign schedule, members and their staffs have done everything from enlisting celebrity allies – Largent's staff hoped Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway would call Colorado members on behalf of the former football star – to spreading dirt about their opponents.
National Republican Congressional Committee chairman John Linder (Ga.), who is battling to keep his post, decried such attacks in an impassioned letter he distributed to House Republicans last week.
"This obsession with false rumor-mongering and spin and counter-spin is what's standing in the way of our Conference's success," he wrote. "It has stymied our progress, sidetracked us, and sidelined our agenda for nearly four years. It's a sickness that so consumes the time and energy of our Conference and there's no focus left for an agenda – an agenda that tells the American people what we're for and what it means to them."
Even being assured of having one vote can be tricky, however, and candidates spend the bulk of their time figuring out whether their colleagues are telling the truth. It is the ultimate political test, and it takes several steps to find the answer.
First, the candidate calls a member to ask for his or her vote and rates the response on a scale of one to five: "one rock solid, five absolutely not," according to one senior House aide. Then the lawmaker asks a group of close supporters, known as a "whip team," to further assess this response. Asking a member from a politician's home state, or from a similar ideological wing of the party, to call the same colleague is a good way to coax out a more frank response. Finally, the candidate enlists someone from Washington's lobbying community to make a call.
"This is where you often get the honest answer – find out what he's saying to his fund-raiser," the senior aide said. "When you get your four bases touched, then you make your count."
But the personal touch is also necessary, and leadership aspirants go to great lengths to track down their wandering colleagues. "I found one member pheasant hunting," recalled Sue Myrick (N.C.), who is running for conference vice chairman. "I found one in Scotland, one in Bermuda."
Of course, some members are not exactly eager to be found. One Republican confessed that while he has already decided to support Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) in his bid to become chairman of the Republican fund-raising committee, he was in no rush to inform Linder.
"Do I want to tell John Linder that 'I'm against you, John,'" the lawmaker asked. "On the list of things I've got to do today, that's not a high priority."
There are other reasons for avoiding those sorts of conversations. One junior Republican, who asked to remain unidentified, told Linder last week that he would be supporting Davis for the NRCC post. A few days later, the lawmaker's staff called the NRCC to find out when their boss could address the incoming freshman class about how to solidify political support back home.
"We were told by Linder's staff, essentially, [that if] we're not backing Linder, we're not needed at freshman orientation," said the lawmaker's chief of staff.
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