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Washington Journal: Congressional Republicans Choose New Leaders Today

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, 18 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Republican Party members of the U.S. House of Representatives will seek to repair their broken ranks today when they meet to choose the party's senior leaders in the House.

The diminished Republican majority will certainly elect a new Speaker of the House. The current office-holder, Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia, announced after the Nov. 3 election that he would not run for another term as speaker and that he will resign from the House entirely sometime next year.

The Republicans will also elect a Majority Leader and several other top officials today and tomorrow.

The change at the top of the Republican Party in the House is a direct result of the party's disappointing showing in the congressional elections two weeks ago. Instead of gaining seats in the House -- as many experts predicted -- the Republicans actually lost five seats from their total. There are 435 members of the House and two dominant political parties -- the Democrats and the Republicans. In the last session of Congress, the 105th, the Republicans held a 228-206 lead (there is one independent member).

However, when the 106th Congress convenes in January, there will only be 223 Republican members to 211 Democrats and the one independent who generally votes with the Democrats.

Many Republicans blamed Gingrich for the outcome of the election. As Speaker, he was the most powerful Republican in Congress and the party leader most visible to the American public. Republicans charged that Gingrich, and other senior party leaders, failed to get the party's ideological message across to American voters, and that they squandered an opportunity to put President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democratic Party members on the defensive.

The day after the election, Congressman Robert Livingston of Louisiana, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced that he would challenge Gingrich for the Speaker's post.

In making his announcement, Livingston said: "Our ideas have gotten lost, perhaps our message has gotten lost in the haze of high rhetoric and miscast priorities, lost in a management style where process is subordinated to polls."

When it became clear that he could no longer count on unanimous support, Gingrich surprised his colleagues by announcing that he would not contest the Speaker's post. And, saying that he did not want to be seen as a distraction to the new leadership, Gingrich said he would resign his congressional seat early in the next session.

Livingston already was a powerful House member. The Appropriations Committee oversees the process of drafting the government's annual budget. As committee chairman, Livingston had a lot of influence over how the taxpayer's money is spent.

The Speaker's post, however, is even more powerful. The job is held by a member from the party in the majority. The Speaker presides over the House and has broad discretionary power to recognize legislators who want to speak on the floor, and to assign members to committees.

The Speaker also controls the House Rules Committee, which decides what legislation is brought to the floor of the House for debate. Under the U.S. Constitution, the Speaker is second in line to succeed to the presidency, after the vice president.

No one is challenging Livingston for the Speaker's position. His job after today's election will be to restore harmony in the party ranks and set the legislative priorities for the Republicans for the next two years.

At a press conference last week, Livingston said: "I think I have good political instincts and understand politics is the art of the possible. I deal well with people of opposite views and opposite parties. I'm going to be speaker for the whole House, and I'm going to make it pleasant to serve in this body of which I'm so proud to be a member."

Livingston is 55 and has been a member of the House for 20 years. Some Republicans accuse him of being too accomodating to the Democrats, but Livingston says he is not a zealot.

Livingston's ancestral roots are deep in 18th Century Colonial America. He is a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the 1776 document that put the 13 British colonies in what is now the northeastern U.S. on the path to becoming a free nation. Livingston is described as having an internationalist outlook. He is a supporter of a strong national defense.

He represents a district in the city of New Orleans in the southern state of Louisiana.

After the Speaker, the House Republicans also will choose their majority leader. There will be a fight for that job. The incumbent, Richard Armey of Texas, was also sharply criticized over the Republicans' election day performance. The majority leader sets the legislative schedule for the House. The leader also is responsible for guiding the majority party's legislative program in the House.

Armey is being challenged by Congressman Steve Largent of the midwestern state of Oklahoma and Jennifer Dunn of the Pacific Coast state of Washington. Largent is a popular former professional athlete. Dunn is currently chairman of the House Republican Conference and is in charge of the weekly party strategy meetings. In order to win outright, Armey must receive 112 votes on the first ballot. If he does not, a second round of balloting would be held between the two top finishers.

The Republicans will also choose their third-in-command House official, a post called "majority whip." The whip has the job of keeping party members in line during debates on controversial issues and providing vote estimates to the Speaker and majority leader.

Finally, the Republicans also must select a Conference chairman and the Republican National Campaign Committee chairman. The campaign committee chairman helps raise money for party candidates.

The 211 Democrats in the House are also meeting in Washington this week to elect their leaders. Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, was re-elected minority leader on Tuesday. Congressman David Bonior of Michigan was re-elected as the minority whip. Democrats also elected Congressman Martin Frost of Texas as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the Democrats' version of the Republican conference. The Democrats' campaign committee chairman should be chosen today.

The U.S. Senate is managed in a considerably different manner than the House. The 100 Senators consider themselves equal to each other and there are really no equivalent posts in the Senate. There is no presiding officer, for example. The constitution designated the U.S. vice president as president of the Senate. However, the vice president's involvement with the Senate is minimal and limited mostly to the rare occasion when he must cast a vote to break a tie.

The Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate. The majority leader is Trent Lott of Mississippi. The minority leader is Richard Daschle of South Dakota. Both are expected to be re-elected when the parties hold their Senate leadership meetings the first week in December.