GOP talks of change in leaders Some fault Gingrich for wavering strategy, lack of clear message

'Newt's not invulnerable'

Dissatisfaction rises to the surface after setback at the polls

November 05, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- With their party's governing coalition in disarray after Tuesday's startling electoral setback, Republicans openly explored yesterday the possibility of unseating the House speaker and electing new congressional leadership for their run for the White House in 2000.

Republicans awoke yesterday to a congressional balance of power that remained virtually unchanged. Yet their loss of five seats in the House of Representatives and their failure to pick up any seats in the Senate resurrected the disaffection that nearly cost House Speaker Newt Gingrich his job in 1997.

Gingrich was blamed yesterday for having vacillated on campaign strategy, at first attacking President Clinton for alleged "crimes" at the White House, then backing off, only to orchestrate a last-minute ad campaign to remind voters of the presidential scandals.

Republican social conservatives blamed Gingrich for compromising on last month's $500 billion budget deal. Economic conservatives said he did not fight hard enough for an election year tax cut.

The 1997 coup attempt fizzled when a credible Republican alternative to Gingrich failed to materialize. But this time, a possible successor is waiting in the wings:

Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, who has the respect of Republican conservatives and moderates alike.

"He'd be a good speaker," said Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, a fellow Bayou State Republican. "He'd probably be the right speaker. It's just a question of now or later."

Tauzin said he did not think a GOP revolt is imminent, but that a transition to new House leadership might be under way.

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican. Gilchrest said Gingrich would probably not be challenged openly, but added, "Newt's not invulnerable. No one person has all the answers."

Rep. David Dreier of California, a Gingrich ally, said of the speaker: "He is concerned, and we are looking at the prospects of making some changes."

Some Republicans were critical of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. But the grumblings reverberating in the House against its leadership failed to echo in the Senate, where party members are more collegial. However, there is nervousness even in the Senate.

"I don't believe there will be any challenges to the current leadership," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "But you never know."

As recently as two weeks ago, Gingrich had boldly predicted that Republicans would pick up 10 to 40 House seats. Now, with his party's thin 11-vote majority sliced nearly in half, Gingrich would have even more difficulty governing the 106th Congress -- should he choose to run for another term as speaker.

Gingrich replies

"There has only been one [Republican] team which has won control, kept control and then won a third election, in 70 years," Gingrich said at a news conference yesterday in his suburban Atlanta district. "Now, we may not be doing everything right, and we may have a lot of things to look at but I would suggest that

it's pretty hard to argue that the only team to have been successful in 70 years somehow ought to be replaced by somebody who has not ever won a nationwide election."

While Tuesday's vote did little to change the numerical balance of power on Capitol Hill, it was nonetheless historic. For only the second time since the Civil War, the party that controls the White House picked up congressional seats in a midterm election.

The carping was loud and caustic. Christian conservatives such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Randy Tate of the Christian Coalition and Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council blamed Republican leaders for failing to stress their pet issues: tax cuts and abortion.

"When the team is losing, you get rid of the coach," Dobson said.

Economic conservatives were no less frustrated, saying Republican leaders have failed to articulate a clear message about lowering taxes and smaller government.

"If the Republicans aren't going to do anything to make life better for the voter, and not even reduce taxes, why not vote Democratic?" scoffed J. Patrick Rooney, a conservative insurance executive who has helped bankroll the Republican Party. "The Democrats at least promise to do good things for voters and their children."

Republican leaders tried to stress the positive. After all, they did retain control of Congress. But only six House incumbents were defeated, and five of them were Republicans: Mike Pappas of New Jersey, Jon D. Fox of Pennsylvania, Rick White of Washington state, Vince Snowbarger of Kansas and Bill Redmond of New Mexico. Two of the three vanquished incumbent senators were Republicans: Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina.

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