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GOP Point Fingers Over Bid to Unseat Gingrich

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conservative House Republicans continued sniping at each other Sunday as they argued over responsibility for a failed rebellion against House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who engineered the Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 elections.

New York Rep. Bill Paxon, who either jumped or was pushed from his House leadership post last week after the coup against Gingrich fell apart, has been widely touted as a possible successor to Gingrich. But speaking on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” Paxon denied that he had supported the coup and said he has no interest in the speaker’s job.

“At no time have I ever been involved in efforts to overthrow the speaker that I worked so hard to elect,” Paxon said. “I tried to work to defuse a problem. . . . Mistakes were made. . . . I accept responsibility, personal responsibility, for the way I handled this matter, and I resigned.”

At the same time, several young Republican insurgents involved in the attempt to oust Gingrich said they would not have participated in the action without the support of other House Republican leaders, including particularly Tom DeLay of Texas, who ranks third in the leadership. And they agreed that Paxon would make a fine speaker.

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Reps. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) said on ABC-TV’s “This Week” that they were both present at a key meeting July 10 in which the idea to remove Gingrich was discussed. At the time, they said, party leaders below Gingrich backed the idea.

Salmon and Scarborough, conservatives who were first elected in 1994, insisted that DeLay had sent a clear message that he would support the rebellion. DeLay, whose title is House Republican whip, has refused to discuss the issue publicly. On Sunday, his spokesman, John Feehery, said that DeLay “has consistently been one of the speaker’s more ardent defenders, and he continues to support the speaker fully. He was simply trying to act as an honest broker” when he met with the dissidents.

“I can tell you unequivocally that the 17 members that were in that room with Tom DeLay had that impression, that we walked out believing completely that that was Tom DeLay’s intent [to support the rebellion],” Salmon said.

Scarborough agreed. “The entire leadership team was on board.”

Scarborough also described Paxon, once regarded by many as a rising star in the GOP, as “a natural choice to succeed the speaker whenever the speaker decides to move on.”

Paxon, a conservative with a reputation for getting along with Republican moderates, was asked on the NBC program if he wanted the job. “No. Period,” he replied. “I never have been interested and don’t intend to be.”

Paxon said he quit his post as chairman of the House Leadership Conference--the fourth-ranking position in the House GOP leadership, and one to which he was appointed by Gingrich--to help speed party healing.

“When I looked in the speaker’s eye, it was clear he had lost confidence in me,” Paxon said. “When your boss loses confidence in you, the person that appointed you to do a job, you resign. You take responsibility for your mistakes, and that is what I did. That does not in any way indicate, and it for sure isn’t, that I was involved in any effort to overthrow the speaker.”

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Paxon, whose wife, Susan Molinari, recently resigned as a member of the House to anchor a new CBS information program, admitted his mistakes: “I didn’t inform the speaker of the problem early enough and certainly didn’t anticipate when it blew up that it would have the impact that it did on our agenda.”

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who led an attempt to remove Gingrich six months ago over his ethics troubles, urged Republicans to avoid splitting into warring factions, particularly while they are negotiating with Democrats over the final shape of this year’s major tax and spending bills.

“I think we’re just really becoming the gang that just can’t shoot straight,” King said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Both Salmon and Scarborough agreed that unhappy GOP conservatives should bide their time on the Gingrich matter until after the talks with the Democrats are concluded. Scarborough predicted that Gingrich would redeem himself by achieving tax and spending legislation embodying the conservative principle of less government.

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Salmon said conservatives longed for the Gingrich whose “contract with America,” a statement of conservative principles, helped propel the Republicans to majority status in the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.

“We just want the speaker that took us up on the Capitol steps three years ago to lead us on the ‘contract with America,’ ” he said. “We would like him back. We’ve seen that man. We know that he can be that man. And we fully expect that it can happen again, but the ball’s in his court.”


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