Gingrich says he's 'overwhelmed' by move to House seat of power

January 04, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich returned to Capitol Hill yesterday with Republican elephants on his tie, the "Contract with America" in his coat pocket and visions of a historic opening day of Congress dancing in his eyes.

"I feel overwhelmed," the beaming Republican said as he settled into a wing chair in his new office for a meeting with Senate Republican leader Bob Dole. "On our side of the building we've never done this in 40 years, so we have a lot to look forward to tomorrow and I think the only word I can use is 'overwhelmed.' "

Indeed, as he accepts the speaker's gavel today -- and as his party takes control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Eisenhower era -- Mr. Gingrich will become one of the most influential political forces in the country.

'Irrepressible 4-year-old'

He will also encounter a challenge unlike any other in his political career in his effort to shed the brash, combative temperament that made him the nasty boy of the Republican Party -- he recently referred to himself as "an irrepressible 4-year-old" -- and adopt a more statesmanlike role to lead the House.

Settling into his new office -- formerly the office of retired Republican leader Robert H. Michel -- signs of the irrepressible 4-year-old mixed with signs of the animal lover and high-techie that the new speaker is known to be.

Perched above a bank of four TV monitors is a giant inflatable dinosaur holding an American flag. Prominently displayed among his books on history and success is a brightly colored, oversized work of fiction titled "If I Ran the Circus." Author: Dr. Seuss.

Mr. Gingrich also signaled a new day by proudly promoting an event for lawmakers' children today featuring the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the popular live-action characters banned from TV networks in Canada and New Zealand because of their violence.

"I am told by some of our younger members that this is a major pro-family gesture," said Mr. Gingrich.

When asked if the group was appropriate given the concerns over its violence, Mr. Gingrich's press secretary Tony Blankley said, "Probably, but America's children love them."

Yesterday, as the Georgian flew to Washington from his home state on a chartered Boeing 767 dubbed "The Speaker's Express" -- with a tail wind of 150 mph that he hoped would be a "good omen" for getting his agenda through swiftly -- Mr. Gingrich promised to lead the House "in a way that will be more open, more workmanlike and have more opportunities for everybody than inthe past few Congresses."

He said he hoped to "set a different tone -- a tone that isn't Republican or Democrat. It's pro-family; it's pro-children; it's much more conservative."

Referring to the new Republican majority and its ambitious opening-day agenda, he said he hoped Americans would see "that we're different, that we're serious and that we kept our word."

Celebration begins

The celebration of Mr. Gingrich's rise to power began last night -- after a send-off breakfast in Georgia, a day of meetings with Republican leaders and a run-through of today's floor activities -- with two parties honoring the new speaker.

The National Republican Congressional Committee sponsored a $50-a-plate "Georgia Salute" to Mr. Gingrich at the National Building Museum. And more than 2,000 attended a $10-a-person gala for the incoming leader sponsored by the spouses of the freshmen Republicans.

But much of the exultant GOP didn't wait for the nighttime activities. Celebrations started earlier in the day, with "welcoming receptions" for new members and staff, and an afternoon tribute to Senator Dole.

"It's a rather happy day," said Rep. Richard K. Armey of Texas, the incoming House Republican leader, posing for photos with tourists. "We're ready to go. It's like you've moved all your furniture into the center. Now it's time to paint the room."

Dress rehearsal day

Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, who led the GOP transition in the House, said he was excited, anxious and busy putting out fires on this dress rehearsal day. Noting that he was once a volunteer firefighter, he said he kept waiting for his beeper to go off again.

"This is no different from peak season when it's dry out," he said. "There's a high probability of spot fires, but I don't see any real danger."

Across the aisle

But on the other side of the aisle, where Democrats were tripping over cable wires and unpacking boxes in their new -- and in many cases, smaller -- offices, there was more chaos than excitement.

"Some members who've been out in their districts are just coming back here now and whoa! it hits you," says Gretchen Kline, press secretary for Democratic Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan. "Things remind you you're no longer in the majority."

Things like Mr. Bonior's new minority whip office -- "less character, less space," said Ms. Kline -- where the tangle of electrical rewirings and the smell of newly painted walls mixed with an air of unease.

"What's on fire? Is something on fire?" inquired an aide, poking her head out of her office to where workers were cutting carpeting and running cable wires.

"It's a mess," said Ms. Kline.

Liberal members of Congress, meanwhile, held a news conference yesterday denouncing the new speaker's "vicious assaults" on low-income Americans and calling his "Contract with America" a "hoax."

"It's amazing. We have a new intellect now in the speaker of the House," said a sarcastic Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, a member of a newly energized Progressive Caucus that is organizing to thwart the GOP agenda of tax cuts and less spending for the poor.

"We have to fight in almost guerrilla warfare every one of these proposals that comes down the pike," said Independent Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

The caucus members noted that in order to get their message across they would have to adopt the brutal tactics employed so successfully in the past by those in the minority party -- especially by Newt Gingrich.

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