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Rep. Lewis Faces Fight to Retain Leadership Post

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), California’s highest-ranking House Republican, is fighting to save his political future this week in the face of a concerted effort to oust him from the party’s congressional leadership.

To do so, Lewis must avoid burial under the fallout from his support for President Bush’s initial budget plan, which was bitterly rejected by House Republicans as well as Democrats. At issue, in part, is the extent to which Republican lawmakers should cooperate with the Republican White House on such politically unpalatable issues as raising taxes.

Closer to home, Lewis also faces a challenge from conservative Orange County GOP adversaries, who are seeking to remove him from a key House committee post in which he represents California Republicans.

The Orange County contingent, led by Reps. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), is also out to replace Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) as a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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“We do seem to have a knack for cannibalism and for rendering ourselves the permanent minority,” bemoaned one California Republican lawmaker who backs Lewis and Thomas.

Lewis and Thomas are both high-profile 12-year House veterans who are considered contenders to succeed Gov.-elect Pete Wilson in the U. S. Senate. Repudiation by fellow Republicans at this juncture could doom their chances. Lewis’ 35th District includes half of Palmdale; Thomas’ sprawling 20th District includes Lancaster and much of the Antelope Valley.

Lewis, 56, will be opposed for reelection today as House Republican Conference chairman--the No. 3 leadership post--by Carl D. Pursell (R-Mich.), a former ally who seconded Lewis’ nomination for the post two years ago. Pursell’s candidacy is supported by House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, the combative Georgian who is a Lewis rival.

Lewis and Gingrich are considered likely opponents to succeed House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who is expected to retire in two years. Defeat today would remove Lewis from contention for the crucial No. 1 spot; on the other hand, a substantial victory would strengthen his hand for the future showdown.

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Gingrich and Pursell opposed the package of tax increases and spending cuts that first emerged from the budget summit in October. Lewis, meanwhile, joined Michel in supporting the White House. Lewis’ critics maintain that he did not use his leadership position to avoid putting them into a situation where they had to decide between jeopardizing their political beliefs and standing or abandoning their President.

“Conservatives are upset with those in our leadership who supported the tax increase,” Rohrabacher said. “That is so opposed to what the Republican Party is supposed to stand for, they shouldn’t be in the leadership.”

Lewis says no Republican liked the budget deal--his aides say he hated it--but “it was the best we could get in light of what happened in the summit.”

After the proposal was defeated, Lewis said: “The package that the Democrats eventually passed was a much poorer package. We didn’t help ourselves by any means.”

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The underlying issue, Lewis says, is a conflict over the role of the party in the minority--a status endured by Republicans for an unbroken and frustrating 35 years.

“If you’pe going to have a role in the process, you’ve got to be able to deal with the majority,” said Lewis, who has lobbied most of the 167 Republicans in the past several weeks. “I did not get elected simply to be a bomb thrower or to take on the majority at every turn, regardless. Obstructionism does not lead to the best public policy.”

Pursell, whose voting record is more liberal than Lewis’, nonetheless has allied himself with Gingrich and the hard-line conservatives in taking a more confrontational approach to the Democratic majority.

“I’m not interested in working in the House if it’s continued business as usual,” said Pursell, a 14-year House veteran. Reps. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) and Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) both opposed the budget package, but they say they are standing by Lewis.

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“When a man has that particular position, he has a certain responsibility as a spokesman for the President that the rest of us do not have,” said Moorhead, the dean of the state’s Republican delegation. “I think a Californian is doing a good job so I don’t see taking that key job away from our state.”

Gallegly, who said Lewis helped him learn the ropes, said: “He has proven to be a very aggressive and competent individual for the Republican Party.”

As conference chairman, Lewis chairs meetings of House Republicans, attends leadership sessions, confers regularly with the President and assists GOP members in their legislative, constituent and reelection efforts.

Referring to conservatives such as Dannemeyer, Dornan and Rohrabacher, who have publicly criticized Lewis, Thomas said, “it is absolute political folly” to oppose someone from your own state for a national leadership position.

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The three highly visible conservatives are also active in efforts to oust Lewis and Thomas from long-held positions representing the delegation on Republican Party committees. These elections--both of which appear to be extremely close--will be held Tuesday or Wednesday.

Lewis is opposed by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) in his bid for a sixth two-year term as the Californian on the GOP Committee on Committees, which handles the politically sensitive task of doling out committee assignments to Republican lawmakers.

Packard said he is opposing Lewis because “more of the delegation assignments should be distributed more equitably.”

Thomas, meanwhile, faces a challenge from John Doolittle (R-Rocklin), a conservative state senator elected to Congress on Nov. 6, as a member of the GOP Congressional Committee. Thomas has held this post for six years, and it is especially sensitive now because congressional districts will be redrawn next year and California will gain seven new seats.

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A California Republican reported that Rohrabacher told him last month: “We have to do something about the liberals Lewis and Thomas.” And, the lawmaker said, Doolittle lobbied him by saying that Thomas had alienated Democratic and Republican leaders in Sacramento.

Thomas, 48, acknowledges that there may be a need to spread party posts around in a bid to bring peace to the contentious 19-member delegation.

He said he was considering stepping down from the congressional committee post--particularly if he should be elected to the time-consuming job of ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee. But he added that he fears that extending such an olive branch would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by those “who want to clean house.”

Thomas said state Republican opponents have sought to label him a liberal--despite his basically conservative voting record--because he has opposed their efforts to exclude minorities, gays and women from the California GOP.

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“Somebody who disagrees with them--because they are the self-defined conservatives--is a ‘liberal,’ ” Thomas said. “How are we ever going to wind up being a majority if we don’t bring more people into the party?”


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