WASHINGTON — The race to succeed House Speaker Newt Gingrich focused on two men Saturday as Republicans plunged into a far-reaching debate about what kind of leader and political strategy they want for the post-Gingrich era.
A potentially formidable candidate for speaker, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas), announced he would not seek the top leadership post--a disappointment to conservatives who had seen him as the best advocate for the tax-cutting policies they want to push.
Archer's decision heightened the likelihood that the main contenders for the speakership will be House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), the front-runner, and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who already holds a mid-level leadership post.
A Livingston aide said Saturday that his boss has commitments from several committee chairmen and more than 90 Republicans overall--nearly the 112-vote majority needed to win the vote among the 223 Republicans who will serve in the next Congress.
But Cox, after spending the day Saturday calling his colleagues, said there were more than 100 uncommitted members and that he was "very encouraged" by the result.
"We have found a highly fluid situation," Cox said. "It's anyone's game."
Other Republicans, such as Rep. James M. Talent (R-Mo.), still may join the fray, but they would be considered longshots. And whoever wins, one thing seems clear: The next speaker is not going to be a hard-charging, self-styled revolutionary in the Gingrich mode.
Livingston and Cox, for instance, already have indicated they would steer the speakership away from being a pulpit for high-volume national political leadership and instead would concentrate on low-key congressional management.
That, in turn, would clear the stage for the party's presidential candidates to take the lead in defining the GOP over the next two years.
"It behooves us to lower the profile [of the speaker's job] but work in the trenches toward the presidential election," said Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.).
Selection of a new speaker is not expected to have a big effect on the impeachment proceedings arising from President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. Neither Cox nor Livingston has been outspoken about the matter, deferring to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).
"Chairman Hyde and the Judiciary Committee have that process within their jurisdiction, and I, like all other members, await their decisions," Livingston said when he announced his campaign for speaker on Friday.
The congressional election results have led many Republicans to conclude that they should wrap up the committee's impeachment inquiry as quickly as possible, which Hyde has said he intends to do. If anything, the leadership turmoil has intensified that view.
Gingrich to Settle 'Details and Legalities'
The power struggle within the GOP ranks was set off Friday when Gingrich, faced with a rebellion as a result of the party's poor showing in Tuesday's midterm elections, abruptly announced he would not seek reelection as speaker for the coming Congress.
Speaking briefly to reporters gathered outside his home in Marietta, Ga., on Saturday, he made explicit what had been unclear initially: He also plans to resign his seat in the House once he has settled the "details and legalities." A special election early next year in the district will pick his successor.
"As a practical matter, for me to stay in the House would make it impossible for a new leader to have a chance to grow," Gingrich said.
Without giving a detailed explanation for his decision to yield the speakership, Gingrich repeated a line he used in a private conference call with his House GOP colleagues Friday night: "I could hardly stand by and allow the party to cannibalize itself. The Republican Party has to pull together as a team."
Gingrich plans to deliver a speech Monday night in Washington to GOPAC, a Republican fund-raising group he once headed, and he indicated he would have more to say about his decision then.
Ambitious Republicans did not long mourn the loss of the leader who orchestrated their surprise takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections and has been a lightning rod for Democratic antipathy ever since.
Instead, phone lines on Saturday hummed with calls to lawmakers from Livingston, Cox and others who will seek election to lesser leadership posts when Republican House members meet in Washington on Nov. 18 to organize for the new Congress.
Leaders picked at that meeting would also have to be approved by the full House when it officially convenes in January, but that vote typically falls strictly along party lines.