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Sources: Gephardt won't seek new leadership term

'It's no secret he's considering running for president'

Decision time for Dick Gephardt
Decision time for Dick Gephardt

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri has decided not to seek another term as House Democratic leader, sources close to the congressman said.

The announcement is a dramatic development that reinforces the turmoil within the Democratic Party after the GOP's historic gains in Tuesday's midterm elections, which included Democratic losses in the House. Gephardt was elected to lead House Democrats in 1994. He was first elected to Missouri's third district in 1976.

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. (Bios of key players)

Frost told CNN he plans to announce his intentions at 10 a.m. ET today. He said Gephardt called him shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday with the news.

"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.

The minority leader serves as the chief legislative strategist for the opposition party in the House -- in this case, Democrats. He or she serves as a spokesman for the party, and the high-profile post can be a springboard for those politicians with higher ambitions.

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.

The 13-term congressman 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.

Leadership criticized

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

The Democrats not only failed to gain seats in the House, they lost seats to the GOP. 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)

Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, of California, could fill Gephardt's post.
Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, of California, could fill Gephardt's post.

The losses increased pressure on Gephardt. Some liberal Democrats complained he was too quick to back President Bush's Iraq policy and didn't do enough to force a coherent party alternative to 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."

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)

'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," Lott said.

Martin Frost of Texas is vying for the leadership post.
Martin Frost of Texas is vying for the leadership post.

"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."

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 Democrat Sen. Max Cleland with Republican Saxby Chambliss.

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

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