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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   Senate GOP Mulls Chance of Shake-Up

    By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, November 8, 1998; Page A20

    Senate Republicans are anxiously monitoring the shock waves from House Speaker Newt Gingrich's decision to step down to see whether it eases or exacerbates the tensions that were already rising in their ranks as a result of the GOP's poor showing in Tuesday's elections.

    The convulsion in the House "could be the end or the beginning, we don't know which," said an aide to a Senate GOP leader whose political fate could hang in the balance. "It's very unsettled," said an aide to a senator who wants changes in the lineup. "It's clearly too soon to say that anyone in the leadership is safe."

    Freshman Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is considering a run for the Senate leadership in hopes of shaking it up, said yesterday that he believes Gingrich "did the honorable thing . . . and accepted accountability" and warned Senate leaders that they "cannot just merrily skip along and, with a wink and nod, say they will do better next time."

    Republicans lost seats in the House and failed to make any gains in the Senate last week more because of their own inadequacies than anything the Democrats did, Hagel said in a telephone interview. "I don't think we had a message . . . or agenda . . . or a spokesman to articulate where we stand," he said. "We played defense all year and we confused our base. We didn't give them a reason to come out and vote for us."

    But Hagel said he has no idea whether Gingrich's decision will increase pressure for Senate changes.

    Senate Republicans will choose their leaders for the 106th Congress in early December, two weeks after House Republicans meet to choose theirs, allowing ample time for frustrations to either fester or abate.

    Even before the embattled Gingrich rocked both wings of the Capitol late Friday with his decision, senators were on the phone with each other discussing possible challenges to their leaders, especially Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was in charge of fund-raising and strategy for Senate Republicans in this fall's campaigns.

    Many senators have focused their ire on McConnell, criticizing what they describe as his inattention to broad campaign themes and his preoccupation with electing Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) to the Senate in his home state and defeating Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a leader in the campaign finance overhaul effort that McConnell opposed. Bunning won but so did Feingold.

    The campaign post is critically important for this election cycle because control of the Senate will be at stake, along with that of the White House and the House. With Republicans defending more Senate seats than Democrats, many senators who are up for election in 2000 are among those agitating for leadership changes, including at the campaign committee.

    Hagel said that "a number of senators" have urged him to challenge McConnell and that he is "very seriously considering" doing do. He said he will make a decision in a couple of weeks.

    Some senators have complained that the problems run deeper than the campaign committee and faulted Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) for failing to develop a compelling election-year agenda. They were especially aggrieved by the handling of the huge end-of-the-session spending bill, which many regarded as a defeat for Gingrich and Lott at the hands of President Clinton.

    But, as of yesterday, no one had stepped out to oppose Lott and few believed he was in jeopardy.

    Several senators indicated privately that they would look favorably on a challenge to Lott by Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) but that Nickles had not signaled whether he would do so. An aide to Nickles yesterday said he could not comment on Nickles's plans. Another source said Nickles is unlikely to run but would have a "good chance" of winning if he did so.

    Unlike House Republicans, who lost five seats, Senate Republicans held their own in Tuesday's election, winding up with the same 55 to 45 margin they had at the campaign's start. But McConnell's committee had talked of gains of one to three seats, and some GOP senators had hoped to gain five seats and win a filibuster-proof majority of 60.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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