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Under Attack, Gingrich Quits as House Speaker

Congress: Conservative GOP lightning rod will also resign his seat, perhaps by year's end, colleagues say. Decision in face of party mutiny sparks a power struggle to succeed him.

November 07, 1998|JANET HOOK and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Faced with mutiny in his ranks and an open challenge to his leadership, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Friday announced he would not run for reelection as House speaker.

The announcement, in the wake of the Republicans' poor showing in Tuesday's election, marks an abrupt end to the spectacular political career of a conservative colossus who has dominated Capitol Hill for four years. Gingrich is expected to resign his seat and leave Congress, perhaps as early as the end of this year.

Gingrich's sudden decision sparked a bloody power struggle among Republicans fighting to succeed him, including Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who announced Friday night that he would run for the speakership.

In a telephone conference call Friday night to House Republican colleagues scattered around the nation, Gingrich said he is resigning because he has concluded that he can no longer be an effective leader of the party.

Noting that the party needs to unify so that it can govern with its newly narrowed majority, Gingrich told his colleagues, "I'm incapable of leading that unity," according to one member who participated in the conference call.

Describing the call in a statement, Gingrich said: "I urged my colleagues to pick leaders who can both reconcile and discipline, who can work together and communicate effectively. They have my prayers and my thoughts as they undertake this task."

Gingrich did not say what he planned to do next, but the circumstances of his departure seem to cloud his prospects for running for president in 2000.

Gingrich's decision was made after a tumultuous day that began with Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who has a considerable following of his own, announcing that he would run for speaker when the House Republican Conference meets Nov. 16 to choose leaders for the new Congress.

What's more, Gingrich was staring at the possibility of defeat even if he could manage to beat back Livingston and other challengers within the Republican conference. He would still have to be approved by the full House in January, and enough Republicans were refusing to vote for him that he might not get the 218 votes needed to become speaker.

It is a powerful irony that the sex scandal that Republicans thought would bring down President Clinton may have indirectly cost them their own speaker. Many attributed the Republicans' election losses to the party's focus on the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal at the expense of developing a campaign message on issues voters cared more about.

Although many Republicans had been clamoring for heads to roll in the wake of the party's election debacle, they were clearly stunned by Gingrich's decision to hand them his.

"A smaller man would have fought this out," said Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) in a CNN interview. "He has allowed the Republican Party to move forward in the next two years."

Gingrich's departure will leave Democrats without the political adversary they most loved to fight. It often seemed that nothing unified Democrats quite so effectively as Gingrich's polarizing partisanship. Still, Clinton issued a gracious statement about his resignation.

"Newt Gingrich has been a worthy adversary, leading the Republican Party to a majority in the House, and joining me in a great national debate over how best to prepare America for the 21st century," Clinton said. "Despite our profound differences, I appreciate those times we were able to work together in the national interest, especially Speaker Gingrich's strong support for America's continuing leadership for freedom, peace and prosperity in the world."

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose relations with Gingrich were frosty and remote, said his resignation is "a real opportunity for a new start in the House."

"It's time to put aside the intense partisanship of the past in favor of a coalition for change which encompasses both parties. I hope that whoever succeeds Newt Gingrich as speaker will immediately begin the process of repairing the damage that was wrought on this institution over the last four years."

Gingrich's decision throws the Republican Party, already badly splintered in the wake of the election, into utter turmoil.

With Gingrich out of the picture, the floodgates are opened to Republicans other than Livingston to jump into the fray. Among those considering a run for speaker are Reps. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), the only black Republican in the House, James M. Talent (R-Mo.), a four-term conservative, and David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), a three-term conservative activist.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas) said after Gingrich's announcement that he was "actively considering" running for speaker.

Cox, in announcing his plans to run for speaker, said he brings to the campaign a concern about "both the ideology and the competence" of the GOP leadership.

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