WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Dick Armey, under fire for allegedly abetting an effort to oust Speaker Newt Gingrich, insisted Tuesday that he did not support the attempted coup, but he aimed an accusatory finger at other GOP leaders.
"Never have I said that I was in favor of any plan to remove the speaker," Armey said in a letter to his colleagues. But for the first time, he clearly implied that he believes other GOP leaders conspired with the rebels, a possibility he initially denied.
Although he did not mention anyone by name, the letter intensified focus on House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has remained publicly silent on his role in the plotting but continued Tuesday to insist that he would not resign from the leadership over the matter.
On the eve of a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, Gingrich (R-Ga.) signaled that he would seek no further changes in the leadership--at least for now. He is expected to tell House Republicans today to put the controversy behind them and to address in private any questions they have about GOP leaders' behavior.
"It is his preference today not to hold a special conference [to discuss the coup attempt] and that we not challenge the leadership in the next conference," said Christina Martin, Gingrich's spokeswoman. "He would prefer to keep the focus on the tax cut as opposed to any challenge to the leadership."
But the high-level finger pointing indicates how hard it will be for Gingrich to quickly contain the controversy and continue running the House with the current leadership lineup.
For one thing, it is not clear whether angry members of the rank and file will comply. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), unconvinced by Armey's letter declaring his innocence, said he would try to force a full meeting of the Republican conference and demand explanations from each of the GOP leaders.
Armey's emotional letter to his colleagues underscored the high stakes for him and other GOP leaders in the wake of last week's revelations that a rump group of disgruntled conservatives laid plans earlier this month for ousting Gingrich.
Members of the group said they were openly encouraged to pursue the coup in a meeting with DeLay. And they said DeLay conveyed the support of other GOP leaders: Armey; Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), who resigned from the leadership in the wake of the revelations, and Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner of Ohio.
Armey's letter was part of a concerted one-on-one campaign by the Texas Republican to quell a controversy that some believe could cast a long and lasting shadow over his future in leadership. "At this point I couldn't care less whether I'll be speaker, majority leader or dogcatcher, but I'll be damned if I'll let my name and honor be destroyed," Armey said.
He said in the letter that, soon after learning of the coup, he had his staff tell the speaker "that if there was an effort to throw Newt overboard they would have to throw me overboard also." But skeptics said they believe that Armey did not inform Gingrich or try to put down the rebellion until after it became clear that Armey would not necessarily succeed him as speaker.
Armey did acknowledge that he attended two meetings with other GOP leaders where they discussed who might succeed Gingrich as speaker. "Based on reports of an uprising, we engaged in 'what if' scenarios," Armey said. "But at no time, however, did I advocate or prepare to remove the speaker."
Armey also said he was mistaken last week when he told a meeting of the Republican conference that no member of the leadership was involved. He did not name anyone, but said "others" had given the dissidents the impression that he had supported the coup.
With Gingrich pushing to avoid the protracted airing of the controversy sought by LaHood and other members, today's meeting of the House Republican Conference may be a powerful measure of Gingrich's ability to reestablish his authority. "It will become a test of whether or not Gingrich can keep everyone in line," said one GOP strategist.
Times staff writer Sam Fulwood III contributed to this story.