GOP mixes new faces with old in leadership vote in Congress Watts joins Livingston, Armey, DeLay, becoming first black in high post

November 19, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Republicans yesterday unanimously chose Robert L. Livingston to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives and turned to J. C. Watts, Congress' only black Republican, to help unite a party that has been in disarray since its losses in the Nov. 3 election.

The party's elections produced something old and something new. Republicans narrowly re-elected Texan Dick Armey to the No. 2 post, House majority leader. The No. 3 position of Republican whip again went to Tom DeLay, another Texan who ran unopposed for a third term in that job.

But the GOP rank and file signaled its desire for a new message and new messengers when it forced out the leader who brought it to a congressional majority four years ago, Newt Gingrich, who was toppled in the immediate aftermath of the election. Yesterday, the Republicans formally dumped Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the GOP conference chairman and a Gingrich acolyte.

As conference chairman, Boehner's main role was spokesman for the House Republicans, a job hampered by a fractured party that for a year has lacked any consensus message to convey. In electing Watts, the House GOP put forward a radically different face, replacing a smooth-talking, chain-smoking Ohioan with a telegenic, inspirational African-American from Oklahoma.

Watts will be the first black Republican to serve in a leadership post.

"I'm going to Disneyland and celebrate," a beaming Watts declared after edging out Boehner 121-93.

Watts, a former star quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, leans toward the conservative end of the party's spectrum, but he has made a name for himself through uplifting speeches and a message of bootstrap self-reliance. He opposes abortion and generally toes the conservative line on economic matters. But he has objected to some GOP efforts to dismantle affirmative action programs.

"The Republicans have learned they don't win by being against everything. J. C.'s a positive force," said Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, whose opposition to Gingrich's re-election helped trigger the GOP leadership upheaval.

Along the same lines, Republicans removed another Gingrich ally, John Linder of Georgia, from the helm of the committee charged with recruiting and electing GOP candidates for the House, replacing him with the more moderate Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia. They elected a moderate woman, Florida Rep. Tillie Fowler, to the position of Republican conference vice chairman.

But Republicans also showed they were willing to take their rebellion only so far. Livingston won by acclamation, even though some conservatives had grumbled that the former New Orleans prosecutor would be insufficiently zealous in pursuing their cause.

Livingston must now go through the formality of competing with House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt in January for the speakership. But with a Republican majority, it is all but assured that Livingston will be the 51st man to hold the speakership, the third highest constitutional rank in the government.

The GOP also gave Armey his job back, but not without sending a message of dissatisfaction with a leadership style that has bordered at times on imperious, at others on just plain bumbling.

In a wide open race, Armey needed three ballots to knock off determined opposition from Steve Largent, a former football great turned conservative hard-liner, and Washington State Rep. Jennifer Dunn, who had hoped a push for diversity would propel her to the highest rank ever attained by a woman in Congress.

Dunn was gracious in defeat, saying she was glad she "took the risk at cracking this glass ceiling."

On the third round of balloting in what Armey called "a merry chase," the folksy Texan finally defeated Largent, 127-95.

"Steve Largent has been too slow and too small all his life, and this is just one more occasion," grumbled Largent, referring to his football days with the Seattle Seahawks and vowing to

continue his confrontational style.

Still, the message of the day was change, and Republicans have high hopes that Livingston can cobble together a governing coalition that can wrack up some legislative achievements.

Party leaders pledged yesterday to cut taxes, secure the future of Social Security, address the nation's education problems, and begin simplifying the federal tax code. It is an ambitious agenda, but more focused than the laundry lists of priorities routinely unfurled during the Gingrich era. Its success or failure could determine the party's fate in 2000.

"Everyone's been talking about message. It's not the message. It's the accomplishments," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a moderate Republican from Delaware. "If there are accomplishments, the message will follow."

But delivering on that agenda will be a formidable task. The GOP will have to govern with a razor-thin 223-211 margin, with one independent who usually votes Democratic. The loss of just six votes could doom Republican legislation -- unless some Democrats are persuaded to support it.

In a somber farewell address behind closed doors, Gingrich urged the party to unite behind its new speaker. Gingrich left the conference before the voting had begun, sending a clear message that his era had ended.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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