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GOP's House Team Brash, Bright and Mostly Young

November 15, 1994|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Until this month, Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) was best known, if at all, as the junior lawmaker who put a paper bag over his head when he appeared on the House floor to accuse the Democrats of covering up the congressional banking scandal three years ago.

The bag is off now as the iconoclastic young conservative takes the reins of the Republican transition team charged by incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) with restructuring the House.

At 34 and awaiting his third term, Nussle is one of "Newt's lieutenants," a group of bright, brash and mostly young GOP conservatives whose names are about to become household words as leading members of the new GOP brain trust on Capitol Hill.

Heading this group as Gingrich's executive officer will be Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the incoming majority leader whose taste for confrontation is surpassed only by his conservatism. "Dick doesn't lob hand grenades," one GOP colleague said recently. "He lobs atomic bombs."

But the group also includes a handful of lawmakers more diverse than the overarching conservatism that unites them would suggest. Among the new leading lights are Reps. Tom DeLay of Texas, Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, Bill McCollum of Florida, John A. Boehner of Ohio, David Dreier of San Dimas, Calif., and, in the category of elder statesman, Henry J. Hyde of Illinois.

Together they have set themselves the ambitious task of not only steering the government sharply toward the right but also of reshaping the House in the hopes of widening the GOP's congressional beachhead for a 1996 assault on the White House.

In the battle to come, however, they must find a way of drawing strength from what is also the GOP's biggest vulnerability: the relative inexperience of most of its rank-and-file members. Fewer than half of the 231 Republicans who will serve in the House next year have been there for more than one term, and many newcomers have no government experience whatsoever.

While this lack of expertise could hamper the GOP's efforts to enact the major structural reforms it has promised in its "contract with America" legislative agenda, it could also work to the Republicans' advantage because many, if not most, of the party's rising stars owe their ascendancy to Gingrich's mentoring. Many incoming freshmen also received financial help in their campaigns from Gingrich, McCollum, DeLay and other party fund-raisers.

"The freshman class's indebtedness to the new leadership, combined with the fact that we all know that we'll be out on our butts in two years if we don't deliver on our promises, means that Gingrich can probably count on more party loyalty than any Speaker before him in recent memory," a senior GOP House aide said.

It also means that, as Gingrich's chief lieutenant, Armey will likely wield greater influence over the GOP rank and file than Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic majority leader in the present Congress, was able to exercise over his foot soldiers.

Armey, 54, born in Cando, N.D., moves into the No. 2 House leadership position with a political and philosophical resume nearly identical to Gingrich's. Like the next Speaker, Armey stormed into politics from an academic background (Gingrich was a history professor and Armey an economics professor) and fought his way up the GOP ladder in fairly swift order by demonstrating a talent for partisan ferocity.

Armey, author of the GOP's "contract with America," launched his House career 10 years ago with a publicity stunt not unlike Nussle's. Arriving in Washington in 1984 as the newly elected representative from a Dallas-Ft. Worth district, he set up living quarters in the House gym until Democratic leaders evicted him. Armey said at the time that he did it to save money, but most saw it as a publicity stunt.

If his style has mellowed somewhat since then, his rhetoric has not, and a moderate GOP lawmaker who was often rankled by Armey's confrontational style said it remains to be seen if the Texan can sufficiently temper his "instinct to shoot from the mouth" to be effective as majority leader.

Armey may be Gingrich's ideological twin, but he has "a tendency sometimes to blurt out things he hasn't quite thought through," added a GOP staffer diplomatically.

It was Armey, for instance, who referred to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton last year as a Marxist and who was publicly scolded by Democrats for dismissively referring to Clinton during a floor debate as "your President." He apologized and said he had not meant to suggest that Clinton was not his President as well.

Suggesting that he has been chastened by the onus of leadership, Armey indicated at a news conference Monday that he would follow Gingrich's lead in promising to work constructively with Democrats, who are now in a position to obstruct the GOP agenda like the Republicans did when they were in the minority.

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