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Gephardt considers future

Said to be eyeing 2004 White House bid

Decision time for Dick Gephardt
Decision time for Dick Gephardt

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Less than a day after Republicans trounced Democratic opponents across the nation, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri decided Wednesday he will not seek another term as House Democratic leader, sources close to the congressman said.

An announcement was planned Thursday morning -- a dramatic development that reinforced the turmoil within the Democratic Party after the GOP's historic gains in the midterm elections.

Gephardt, 61, huddled with his wife, Jane, and consulted top advisers throughout the day. By late Wednesday, the 13-term congressman was calling close colleagues to inform them of his decision, the sources said.

Gephardt was said to be irritated that a few House Democrats publicly called for him to step aside, but top aides insisted those critics were not a major factor in his decision.

With the void at the top, two Democrats are vying to fill the spot: Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the Democratic caucus, and Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of California.

Frost told CNN that he plans to announce his intentions at 10 a.m. ET Thursday. He said Gephardt called him shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday and said he would not seek another term as House Democratic leader.

"I think he just decided that it was time to consider other options," Frost said. "It's no secret that he's considering running for president. I don't know whether he will or not, but he's at least considering that and I think it was time for him to move on."

Pelosi has not publicly announced her intentions, although sources close to her say she will seek the spot.

Leadership criticized

In the days before the elections, Gephardt aides and outside advisers said he was all but certain to run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, and considering stepping aside as minority leader immediately after the elections or a few months into the next Congress. (Full story)

But not only did Democrats fail to gain seats in the House, the GOP expanded its majority. Republicans won at least 226 seats, up from the 223 they had going into the elections. At least 218 seats are needed for control of the 435-member House. (House races)

The elections marked only the second time since 1934 that a president's party did not lose House seats in a midterm ballot -- the first time for a Republican president since 1902.

That increased pressure on Gephardt. Some liberal Democrats complained he was too quick to back the president's approach on Iraq and did not do enough to force a coherent party alternative to President Bush's approach on the economy.

One Democrat who publicly called for Gephardt to step aside was Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tennessee.

"Dick Gephardt, let me say this, is one of the finest leaders this nation has known. He's the hardest working, biggest money raiser and frankly the most passionate Democrat in the House," Ford told CNN's "CrossFire." "But much like a manager of a baseball team who really, really wants to win, is beloved by his players but simply can't win -- sometimes it's time to move on. And now might be a time for infusion of new ideas and new faces within the leadership of the House on the Democratic side."

Rep. Peter Deutsch of Florida -- a long-time Gephardt critic -- was even more direct: "If no one else will challenge him, I will."

Another House Democrat who asked not to be identified said the discontent with Gephardt's leadership pre-dated the elections but were exacerbated by the results, calling them "an absolute blowout."

"There has been a lot of concern in our caucus for quite some time," this Democrat told CNN. "I don't see how he possibly can [run for leader]. In part because of what's happened in this election, but in part because you can't serve two masters and he's trying to launch a presidential campaign."

Legislative clout

Besides retaining control of the House, Republicans regained the Senate with at least a 51-seat majority when former Vice President Walter Mondale conceded to Norm Coleman in Minnesota.

Two other contests remain undecided.

In South Dakota, the race between Democrat Tim Johnson and Republican John Thune was still too close to call. Johnson declared victory Wednesday, but Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who also represents South Dakota, said he expected Thune to call for a recount.

In Louisiana, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu was headed into a runoff because early returns indicated she had not grabbed 50 percent of the vote, as required by state law. (Senate races)

Control of the Senate will give Republicans a chance to dictate the legislative agenda in Washington for the remainder of Bush's term.

And with control of the Senate Judiciary Committee in particular they can push through Bush's nominations to the federal bench many of which the president claimed Democrats were stalling. That would include possible Supreme Court nominations.

The last president whose party gained seats in both houses of Congress in midterm elections was Franklin Roosevelt, 68 years ago.

White House aides and top Democrats attributed the results to Bush's intensive campaigning on behalf of GOP candidates, particularly in close Senate races in the South and Midwest.

"Certainly, the candidates who ran, ran very strongly on the president's agenda and won on that agenda," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

'Need to have a budget'

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who is likely to replace Daschle as majority leader, pledged to move White House-backed bills stalled in the chamber as soon as Congress reconvenes.

"We need to have a budget, to begin with. We need pension reform, welfare reform. We need to do more in education," he said.

Lott in his Capitol Hill office Wednesday: Ready to take over.
Lott in his Capitol Hill office Wednesday: Ready to take over.

"Let's quit talking about doing something for low-income elderly that need prescription drugs. Let's look at what we can do to target some tax cuts that would help the economy. Let's have fiscal restraint."

Daschle said the war on terrorism and the threat of war with Iraq apparently trumped Democrats' emphasis on the current economic slump.

"People were concerned about national security, and that precluded us from having the opportunity to break through on the issues that we cared most about -- the economy, education and health care," Daschle said.

Bush put his own prestige and popularity on the line, campaigning in 40 states and raising $140 million for GOP candidates this year. He planned no public statements Wednesday, in what Fleischer called "a touch of graciousness."

The only bright spot for Democrats came in gubernatorial races, where Democrats took over or held several states that could be key in the 2004 presidential campaign -- California, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. (Governors' races)

But in the Democratic bastion of Georgia, Republican Sonny Perdue ousted better-financed incumbent Roy Barnes to become the state's first GOP governor since Reconstruction. Georgia voters also replaced Max Cleland with Republican congressman Saxby Chambliss.

And in the most closely watched governor's race in the country, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- the president's brother and the Democrats' top target -- easily won a second term over Democratic challenger Bill McBride.

CNN correspondents John King, Bob Franken, Kate Snow and Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.

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