Frustrated by decades of Democratic domination, House Republicans on Wednesday elected confrontational conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia to their second-ranking leadership post, over the opposition of House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois.
Backers of Gingrich said his 87-85 victory over the more traditional and less colorful Rep. Edward R. Madigan (R-Ill.) reflected a widespread demand for more aggressive tactics in dealing with the Democratic majority.
An elated Gingrich said his strategy, in contrast with the current Republican approach, would be “closer to a UCLA full-court press.”
Gingrich’s new title is minority whip, the post held by Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming until President Bush named him defense secretary.
Not Seeking ‘Nice Guys’
Gingrich’s backers rejected the view that the minority Republicans must cooperate with Democrats to influence legislation, as Madigan often did as a member of the Agriculture Committee. “Ed Madigan is a nice guy,” said Rep. Chuck Douglas (R-N.H.). “And nice guys aren’t what we were looking for.”
Michel, clearly downcast by the defeat of Madigan, said that he would “go with the flow” and make changes where necessary in the Republican high command. But he also noted that a minority party with 80 fewer votes than the Democrats must carefully select the issues where it can fight and have a chance to win.
Democratic leaders were quietly jubilant at Gingrich’s success. They view him as the Republican most likely to unify the often-splintered factions of their party if he continues his highly partisan attacks in his new position.
It was Gingrich who filed the charges that have led to a House Ethics Committee investigation of the financial affairs of the House’s leading Democrat, Speaker Jim Wright of Texas.
“We’re obviously going to have a delicate and difficult relationship at best,” Gingrich said of the Speaker.
Wright extended congratulations and best wishes to Gingrich. Told that Gingrich had promised to treat him with courtesy, however, Wright laughed before saying: “I look forward to that.”
Foley Avoids Prejudging
House Democratic Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said that he would not prejudge Gingrich, who has accused the Democrats of being run by a “corrupt, left-wing machine.”
But Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who ranks third in the Democratic leadership behind Wright and Foley, could hardly conceal his joy at Gingrich’s selection, calling it “manna from heaven.” He said Democrats could exploit Gingrich’s ultraconservative positions on Social Security and other issues.
Coelho, who as majority whip will be Gingrich’s counterpart on the Democratic side, pointed out that Gingrich’s job will be to count votes and build coalitions with members of the other party. “He can no longer bomb bridges, he has to build bridges,” Coelho said.
Even Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), who voted for Madigan out of home-state loyalty, said that Gingrich won because of his hard work, enthusiasm and ability to command media attention. “Of course, if you live by the press, you can die by the press,” she noted.
O.C. Delegation Backed Winner
All five Orange County congressmen backed Gingrich.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) said he went into Wednesday’s vote uncommitted but decided that Madigan is too similar to other House Republican leaders, whom he called “consensus builders.”
“We need someone who can go toe to toe with the Democrats and fight them in their own style,” Packard said, explaining why he finally voted for Gingrich. “They’ve got their Newt Gingriches. . . . We’ve not had anyone who would take them on.”
Rep. C. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who as chairman of the House Republican freshman caucus helped round up votes for Gingrich, said he was “as excited about today’s vote as I was on the night of my own election.”
“Without a doubt, House Republicans will now be offering a legislative agenda of their own which will be forward looking and responsible and in favor of growth and jobs,” Cox said.
Some Are Dismayed
Some Republicans were dismayed by the outcome. Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) said it is a “tragedy” to divide the minority party over the whip contest. Other GOP veterans complained that Gingrich was largely untested in legislative negotiations and the intricacies of counting how Republicans would vote on closely contested bills or amendments.
“I have a lot to learn about the inside game,” acknowledged Gingrich, a former history professor better known as a debater and gadfly than a craftsman familiar with the nitty-gritty details.
Gingrich, seeking to reach out to moderates in his party, arranged for veteran Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota to nominate him for the whip’s job, with seconding speeches by Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Arkansas, a friend of President Bush’s, and the widely respected Rep. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a staunch conservative, predicted that Gingrich would do well in the whip’s job. “He’s smart enough to know we have to achieve, not just fight. You can say what you want about Newt, but he’s smart. He’ll mature to the job,” Hyde said.
After his election, which was greeted with whoops and hollers in the staid Republican Capitol Hill Club two blocks from the Capitol, Gingrich promised to be a team player. He said his victory was not a rejection of the way the more easy-going Michel has led.
“If the question had been a test of Bob Michel’s leadership, I wouldn’t have got 40 votes,” he said.
Madigan holds that Republicans will benefit not from confrontation, but from reapportionment of congressional districts after the 1990 census, picking better candidates and sound campaign financing.
Staff writer Claudia Luther in Orange County contributed to this story.