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Challenge to a Senate GOP Leader Arises


WASHINGTON — The rank-and-file backlash against Republican congressional leaders spread to the Senate on Tuesday as an outspoken freshman lawmaker announced he will seek to unseat veteran Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as chairman of the committee that funnels campaign money to GOP Senate candidates.

Although the challenge by Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) is viewed as a longshot, his candidacy is a visible slap at the chamber's Republican leadership in the wake of the party's failure to broaden its congressional majority in the Nov. 3 elections.

McConnell, an ally of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), has been widely criticized since the election for the way he has run the campaign committee--including his decision to hold back financing from California GOP Senate candidate Matt Fong.

Post-election anger among House Republicans already has forced Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to step down as speaker and led to the defeat of Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as head of the GOP Conference. Until Tuesday, the Senate GOP leaders were considered safe.

Hagel, a maverick conservative with a penchant for speaking his mind, told a news conference Tuesday that the Senate leadership needs to hammer out "a creative agenda" with which to attract voters.

Although Hagel insisted that vote counts show he is "in striking distance" of victory, strategists said he hurt himself among fellow GOP senators by criticizing Lott publicly.

Senate Republicans are scheduled to hold in-house elections on Tuesday for majority leader, majority whip (a post held by Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma) and campaign committee chairman; only McConnell is expected to be challenged.

McConnell, first elected to the Senate in 1984, is an intense, fiercely partisan politician who has run the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as the panel is known, in close-to-the-vest style since 1996.

He has drawn criticism for allowing his personal agenda to influence the way he distributes campaign funds. Staunchly opposed to campaign finance overhaul, he did little to help reform advocate Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.) in her failed bid to unseat Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

He also poured large amounts of committee money into his home state to help Republican Rep. Jim Bunning edge Rep. Scotty Baesler in a battle for an open Senate seat.

In the race between Fong and incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), McConnell opted to hold back on national GOP contributions to the Republican candidate's unsuccessful campaign on grounds that the party could use the money more profitably to finance campaigns in three other states.

After losing five seats in the House and barely holding onto their 55 seats in the Senate, GOP lawmakers have turned on their leaders, charging that they have failed to provide them with winning issues and have spent too much time criticizing President Clinton.

Hagel, elected to the Senate in 1996, told reporters on Tuesday: "I think one of the things that Republicans learned in 1998 is that you can't just win by beating up on your opponent and giving the American public no positive alternative."

He said that if he is elected committee chairman, his primary focus would be on ensuring the reelection of the 19 Republican senators whose seats will be on the line in the 2000 elections.

Lott's reaction to Hagel's challenge was predictably lukewarm. "Given the challenges of the coming election cycle, it is critical that we elect a chairman of the senatorial committee with the seasoned experience and proven skills to lead us to victory," he said.

The McConnell camp issued a similar caution against " . . . turning this committee over to a two-year freshman."

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