WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., announced tearfully yesterday that he will retire after nearly four decades in Congress, touching off what is certain to be a fierce struggle for leadership within the congressional ranks of the GOP.
Mr. Michel's decision, announced at a press conference in Peoria, Ill., appeared to be driven in part by frustration over his party's loss of the White House and over the confrontational style of his more conservative GOP rivals.
"Had George Bush won re-election, I would have felt obliged to see his administration through," the 70-year-old Mr. Michel said. He said he would step down after his term ends next year.
Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, whose intensely partisan and confrontational style frequently brought him into conflict with the soft-spoken and more moderate Mr. Michel, is considered the front-runner in the GOP leadership race. He could face a serious challenge, however, from fellow conservative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the most ardent abortion opponent in the House.
Rep. Dick Armey and Rep. Tom Delay, both of Texas, and Rep. ZTC Duncan Hunter of California are likely to enter the race for Mr. Gingrich's post as minority whip or some of the other top positions.
Whatever the outcome of the individual contests, the larger result is expected to be a more combative, confrontational and conservative GOP leadership -- one that, together with anticipated Republican gains in the House next year, could pose more difficulties for President Clinton's future legislative agenda.
But congressional analysts -- Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution among them -- also saw an opportunity for the White House in the possibility that Republican divisions will be magnified by an intensely competitive leadership race.
"There is no question that the House Republican Party leadership is becoming more conservative and confrontational, or that the moderate wing is vanishing," Mr. Mann said.
But the drift to the right is also likely to alienate many other Republican moderates, giving Mr. Clinton the opportunity to woo their votes on key issues like health care, he added.
"My guess is that this is going to be one of the bloodiest [leadership] fights we have ever seen . . . and if the Republicans start carving themselves up, then Clinton is going to be the beneficiary," agreed Charles Cook, a political analyst who keeps a close watch on Congress.
First elected to Congress in 1956, the amiable Mr. Michel was widely regarded on both sides of the aisle as an outstanding practitioner of a conciliatory style of politics.
In recent years that style brought him into conflict with Mr. Gingrich and other conservatives who favor a more partisan approach toward Democrats.
The tensions peaked in the aftermath of the November elections, when Republican conservatives solidified their control over the House GOP leadership, ousting moderates from senior party posts.