WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), announced tearfully Monday that he will retire after nearly four decades in Congress, touching off what is certain to be a fierce struggle for GOP leadership in the House.
Michel's decision, announced at a press conference in Peoria, appeared to be driven in part by frustration over his party's loss of the White House and over the confrontational style of his more conservative GOP rivals.
"Had George Bush won reelection, I would have felt obliged to see his Administration through," Michel said. He said he would step down after his term ends next year.
Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, whose intensely partisan and confrontational style frequently has brought him into conflict with the soft-spoken, more moderate Michel, is considered the front-runner to replace the retiring leader.
He could face a serious challenge, however, from fellow conservative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the most ardent abortion opponent in the House.
Reps. Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas and Duncan Hunter of El Cajon are likely to seek Gingrich's post or other GOP leadership jobs in the House.
"The music starts now and in the next few weeks we'll see Gingrich, Hyde, Armey and others circling the chairs," said a senior House Republican leadership aide.
Whoever wins individual contests, the larger result is likely to be a more combative, confrontational and conservative GOP leadership--one that, together with anticipated Republican gains in the House next year, could pose more difficulties for President Clinton's legislative agenda.
Gingrich has yet to announce his candidacy but it is considered so certain that his rivals wasted no time in campaigning against him.
The first to enter the race was Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon of New York, who said that he would oppose Gingrich because the party "needs a workhorse, not a show horse."
While Solomon declined to criticize Gingrich by name, he clearly sought to define their differences, saying at a news conference that Republicans need a leader who can help them to shed their "obstructionist" and "blindly partisan" image by "building coalitions with conservative Democrats."
Hyde kept his supporters guessing, saying only that he had "no present plans" to seek Michel's job.
Elected to Congress in 1956, the amiable Michel was widely regarded on both sides of the aisle as an outstanding practitioner of a conciliatory style of politics. An immigrant's son from Peoria, he enjoyed a reputation as "a legislator who, whenever possible, shunned confrontation in favor of trying to really get things done," one GOP aide noted.