WASHINGTON -- When Thomas S. Foley took the speaker's gavel from the scandal-tinged Jim Wright nearly three years ago, the sigh of relief from lawmakers was almost audible. The fair-minded and thoughtful man from Washington State would end the rancor in the House, they believed, and help win back the respect of voters.
Now, many House members wonder if Mr. Foley can deliver them from the latest plague of scandals over the House bank and post office and the "perks" that irritate the public. Already embittered by congressional pay raises and legislative deadlock, voters are in their worst mood in years.
Like other members of Congress, Mr. Foley, a 28-year veteran of the House, could face his toughest re-election fight in years this fall. He also is facing the anger of his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill, some of whom wonder whether he should re
main as speaker.
A number of Democrats criticize Mr. Foley, an amiable lawmaker from Spokane, for not moving faster to clean up the scandals. Others grumble that he is indecisive and slow in pushing key legislation.
Even before the scandals, Democrats privately asked whether Mr.Foley, 63, had the strong partisan edge needed to battle a Republican White House, which has prevailed on more than two dozen vetoes of legislation.
One Democrat, Rep. John Bryant of Texas, called for the speaker to step down, saying Mr. Foley does not display the necessary leadership.
"That's one member and he's got his own view," Mr. Foley said matter-of-factly recently. "My view is not his, of course."
But, clearly stung by the criticism, Mr. Foley recently embarked on a televised offensive, defending Congress and trying to shift the publicity about "perks" to the White House by terming President Bush the "king of perks" and Vice President Dan Quayle the "crown prince of perks." He also vowed to make needed management changes in the House and return to the legislative agenda.
The speaker achieved at least some success on that front this week when the House approved a Democratic-measure that would create the post of House administrator and inspector general to oversee non-legislative management of the chamber.
What started out as a bipartisan effort was abandoned by Republicans, disturbed over their failure to win support for added provisions, including one to give them a greater percentage of committee seats. Many GOP members denounced the effort as a "sham," but Democrats are happy they can return home for a two-week spring recess and tell constituents they are beginning to clean up the House.
Mr. Foley, a Superior Court judge's son with a taste for Bach, Beethoven and Brooks Brothers suits, exhibits a judicial temperament as steady and constant as the mighty rivers that course through his wheat-growing district. Former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. liked to say that Mr. Foley looked at three sides of every issue.
His professorial manner doesn't mix with cheap political gimmicks, supporters say. William First, a former aide, recalled that the staffrged Mr. Foley years ago to "demagogue" on an issue. But he found it distasteful and said, "Look, if there's one vote I want to get in this election, it's my own."
Now, some of the very traits once so admired by his colleagues are at the heart of their discontent.
"He tends to be an accommodationist," said one Southern Democrat. "That's great for some places, but not the United States Congress. . . . I think we long for someone like Jim Wright, strong and forceful."
Rumors abound on Capitol Hill about possible scenarios to oust Mr. Foley. Some point to George Miller, a liberal California Democrat, who said through a spokesman that he is not running for speaker.
One story says that Rep. Ed Jenkins, a Georgia Democrat retiring at the end of the year, would become interim speaker until an election in January. Mr. Jenkins said he doesn't know the story's origin and is not interested. "I want to leave quietly," he said with a chuckle.
Many lawmakers interviewed -- even detractors -- say that despite the scandals, Mr. Foley will survive as speaker, boosted by the respect of his colleagues.
Others say it is too early to tell. The November election might bring a heavy turnover, sweeping into the House a horde of anti-Congress Democrats. Veteran members might have close, bare-knuckle races, leaving them angry at the leadership. "In that climate, it's difficult to say what would occur," Mr. Hayes said.
In the wake of criticism, Mr. Foley sheepishly acknowledged that he did not move quickly enough to deal with the scandal over the operation of the House bank, deemed "lax" and "haphazard" by an ethics committee report.
Now, he has vowed to remove the "perks" enjoyed by members, and he started by eliminating free medical prescriptions and urging a higher fee for the House gym. And he vigorously defended his wife, Heather, who is his unpaid chief of staff, against charges that she tried to impede the post office investigation.