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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   House Republicans Embrace Livingston, Armey, Watts

    Rep. Bob Livingston celebrates his selection as House speaker with Majority Leader Dick Armey. (AFP)
    By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, November 19, 1998; Page A1

    House Republicans purged much of their troubled leadership yesterday, turning away from the ideological rhetoric of recent years to embrace incoming Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) and his nuts-and-bolts pledge to provide "honest, responsive and efficient government."

    The incoming Republicans, gathered for their post-election organizing meetings, reelected Rep. Richard K. Armey (Tex.) as majority leader, the number two job. But in a sign of the restiveness within his party, Armey needed three ballots to hold off his strongest challenger, former pro football star Steve Largent (Okla.).

    Moreover, two more senior Republicans paid for the party's poor performance in congressional elections by losing their leadership posts. In the day's biggest upset, Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), the only African American Republican in the House, defeated incumbent Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) to become GOP conference chairman, the fourth-ranking position in the hierarchy.

    And Fairfax County's Rep. Thomas M. Davis III unseated Rep. John Linder (Ga.) as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the organization responsible for overseeing the party's efforts in House elections. The victory of Davis, a rising star in Virginia politics, gives him the most significant leadership perch of any Washington-area representative.

    The only incumbent reelected without opposition was Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. Along with Livingston, who stepped into the breach when Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) suddenly quit Nov. 6, the new team featured a uniformly conservative front. All of the top leaders were antiabortion and all were from the South – including four from three contiguous states.

    But with the election of Watts – who, several members hastened to stress, was not chosen because he is black – the GOP had broadened its public face to blur its image as the party of white males. Colleagues regard Watts, another former football player, as one of the most articulate and charismatic of the young conservatives who brought the Republicans to power in 1994.

    With changes in three of the top five positions, the new team also reflected a desire to reenergize the party after stunning losses in Nov. 3 elections. The incoming GOP's 223-212 vote House majority will be the smallest since 1953.

    After being nominated for speaker by acclamation – he will formally take the gavel when the new Congress meets Jan. 6 – Livingston offered an acceptance speech in which he steered clear of the intramural feuding and the ideological sharp edges that have defined the GOP House for the last four years.

    Instead, he repeated President Ronald Reagan's aphorism that "thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican," and urged his colleagues to "communicate better with ourselves and better with the public."

    He never mentioned his party's often divisive social agenda, and focused on traditional GOP values: "That's what being Republican is all about," he said, "valuing independence and human dreams, and knowing that if government gets too big, or takes too much of the family income that those dreams begin to fade, and freedom dwindles."

    Americans "simply want honest, responsive, efficient government from their public servants," Livingston said, promising an agenda that would include tax cuts, small government, strong defense, social security reform, educational reform and balancing the budget.

    And in another departure from recent GOP House rhetoric, Livingston made clear at the very beginning of his remarks that he was proud of his position and would not blame Congress for the sins of big government:

    "I love this job we hold, and I hope you do too," Livingston said. "We do the peoples' business in the peoples' House. Twenty-one years ago, as a young man from Louisiana, I was awed and humbled to come here, and I still am."

    He also openly offered to make common cause with Democrats, saying "we lose nothing by reaching out to the other side," but making it clear that "we won't sacrifice our principles for the sake of the appearance of progress."

    Livingston's words played well to colleagues still reeling from the election setbacks, Gingrich's sudden departure and Livingston's decision to step into the breach with a more pragmatic, less confrontational approach.

    "A lot of people are excited about Bob Livingston," said conservative Rep. Joe Scarborough (Fla.), who said the party appeared to be pulling together better now that it had such a tiny majority. "There's a lot less grumbling this year, and nobody is putting blame on anyone else."

    While Livingston's election was preordained, much of the suspense during the closed-door Republican organizing meeting yesterday had to do with the majority leader's race, with Armey fighting for his job against Largent, a strong conservative, and the more moderate Jennifer Dunn (Wash.). During nominations, members also put up Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), but he dropped out after garnering only 19 votes on the first ballot.

    Next out was Dunn, who received 49 votes in a three-way race. Armey had 99 votes and Largent 73. On the final ballot, Armey had 127 votes, to 95 for Largent.

    Armey, notorious for his verbal gaffes, was on the target list of Largent and other young conservatives who believe he abandoned them in their failed effort to unseat Gingrich in a 1997 coup. But Armey appeared to benefit from the failure of a powerful alternative to emerge: Only some moderates were willing to support Largent, few conservatives wanted Dunn and Hastert, a potentially powerful alternate, came into the race too late.

    "I believe people feel more comfortable with retaining Dick Armey's proven record of involving a relatively broad spectrum of the conference in the creating an agenda of the coming Congress," said Rep. Bob Franks (N.J.), a moderate who backed Dunn initially.

    Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (N.Y.), an Armey supporter, called the majority leader's reelection "a tribute to the professionalism of his staff," who were often more willing to reach out to moderates than their boss.

    "He's obviously been around a long time," said Scarborough, a Largent supporter. "We'll see. Republicans have a record of not learning from their mistakes. To say that Dick Armey's just not telegenic doesn't cut it."

    Armey had apparently received the message. In his short acceptance speech, spokeswoman Michele Davis said, he congratulated his opponents on a good race and suggested the need to "heal some of the wounds." Armey added: "I've heard enough from my colleagues over the last two weeks to know that when I retire I shouldn't take up a television career."

    Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) said for all the changes, there was also "a feeling that some stability needed to remain. I think there was some hesitancy to throw everybody out."

    This may have helped Armey, members acknowledged, but it probably also helped Watts, because it opened the way for a newcomer to win a more junior leadership post. "There were a lot of members who felt new faces would be helpful to the conference," Boehlert said.

    Watts' election culminates a remarkably rapid rise for the former star quarterback from the University of Oklahoma, who was first elected to the House only four years ago. While Watts, 42, has insisted he's not running "as a black candidate," he has advocated a more aggressive outreach by the party to minorities.

    He has also not been shy about criticizing more senior leaders, arguing frequently that the party must develop a more coherent message. Now he will have a first-hand opportunity to do just that, since one of the jobs of the conference chairman is to help develop the party message, along with running weekly closed-door meetings of Republican members.

    "I think it's good for the Republican Party, for America to know that the Republican Party – that we're a party of men and women, and red, yellow, brown, black and white Americans," Watts said yesterday. "I ran an election not based on my skin color but based on what I hope to bring to the table and what I propose to do for our conference."

    In other leadership races, House Republicans also kept two women in more junior posts, choosing Rep. Tillie Fowler (Fla.) to serve as GOP conference vice-chair and reelecting conference secretary Deborah Pryce (Ohio). Fowler, who takes the place of Dunn, beat out Reps. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), Sue Myrick (N.C.) and Anne Northup (Ky.)

    Before the elections yesterday morning, GOP members heard from Gingrich, who received a prolonged standing ovation by colleagues; despite their recent disillusionment with the outgoing speaker, many members still regard him as a visionary leader who brought them back to the majority after 40 years in the wilderness. Later Livingston would describe Gingrich as "truly a great and historical figure."

    Gingrich did not linger, according to those who heard him. He reminded the members that they were still in the majority and gave a rendering of his vision for Republican greatness. Then he handed a gavel to Livingston and left on a Florida vacation.

    "It was a farewell from us to him and him to us," said Rep. George W. Gekas (Pa.) "He was well-received, and there was an atmosphere of serenity and joviality." But even though "a lot of people have a warm feeling about Newt," continued Rep. Paul E. Gillmor (Ohio), "it wasn't a topic of discussion."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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