GOP insurgents emerge with eyes on top posts Challenge to Gingrich most likely to come from La.'s Livingston

November 06, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Disaffection began spreading through the Republican ranks of Congress yesterday, as new House candidates emerged to challenge virtually the entire leadership team that brought the party to power in 1994.

Republican leaders had hoped the finger-pointing from the party's debacle in Tuesday's election would begin to subside. Instead, Republican sources said, it has only intensified.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for four years the highly visible symbol of the Republicans' control of Congress, is clearly the chief object of the unhappiness within the party, House members say.

Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who took part in the last coup attempt against Gingrich, announced last night that he would not support Gingrich's re-election and said he knew of at least seven others who would vote against the speaker.

A Salmon ally, Rep. Mark E. Souder of Indiana, signaled there would be a push for new leadership:

"The bottom line is, in the last 48 hours, what has become absolutely clear is members want a change. There will be changes at the lower level. The only question now is the speakership."

Gingrich, who survived an internal coup attempt last year, and his leadership team have spent the past two days phoning members, discussing strategy changes and pressing them for continued support.

But the restless insurgents have been just as active, publicly demanding leadership changes in the wake of the electoral setbacks that cut the Republican lead in the House by five seats. Before the election, Republicans had expected to gain several seats.

The new 223-to-211 Republican margin in the House, with one liberal independent, represents the slimmest congressional majority since 1953, the last time Republicans controlled the House until re-capturing it in 1994.

Publicly, Republican leaders said that while they were willing to discuss changes in tactics and policy with their rank and file, they were confident they could stave off the brewing challenges.

"If there's any change in leadership, the leaders themselves will decide," said Jim Nicholson, the Republican national chairman.

But the disaffection is coming not only from the usual young conservative rabble-rousers but also from some of the party's most respected senior members.

"Leadership takes credit when things go right," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the respected chairman of the Judiciary Committee who, at a nationally televised news conference, pointedly declined to say whether he thought Gingrich should remain speaker of the House.

"They ought to accept the blame when things go wrong."

Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, the powerful and popular chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was set to meet last night or today with a potential ally, Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, to discuss forming an insurgent ticket.

Largent, a telegenic Hall of Fame pro football player, would likely challenge House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, the No. 2 House Republican after Gingrich.

Only the third-ranking leader, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, well-regarded as the House Republican whip, seems relatively safe.

Moderate Republican representatives, such as Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Rick A. Lazio of New York, are demanding a centrist voice in the leadership, most likely in the position of Republican conference chairman, the fourth-ranked slot now held by Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio.

But the field is crowded. Last night, Rep. George P. Radanovich of California became the first member to formally announce that he wants that job.

"Republican losses on election night cannot be excused away as a result of local issues and individual races," Radanovich, one of the leaders of the conservative wave of Republicans elected in 1994, said in a statement. "The Republican Party lacks a coherent and comprehensive message."

Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington state, already a lower-ranking member of the Republican leadership, is eyeing advancement.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan is considering a run at Boehner's job. And in a sign of a budding battle royale, Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only African-American Republican in Congress, told Souder he would run for the speakership if either Livingston or Rep. David M. McIntosh of Indiana declines to do so.

"It's healthy that we're going through this ferment," said Rep. Marge Roukema, a moderate New Jersey Republican. "After all, if you ignore election results, you don't learn anything. And we have to learn from this horrid experience."

Leadership aides insist the current team has little to worry about.

House Republicans will meet in less than two weeks to elect their leaders for the new Congress, giving outsiders little time to organize an insurgency. There is no chance that Gingrich will simply step down, as Livingston suggested he do in a phone conversation with the speaker Wednesday.

"He intends to run for re-election, and he intends to run and win," a leadership aide said of Gingrich yesterday.

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