Gingrich calls it quits
Speaker's surprise decision follows challenge from Livingston; post-election recriminations continue
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, November 6) -- In the face of a brewing rebellion within the Republican Party over the disappointing midterm election, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made the stunning decision Friday to step down not just from the speakership, but also leave Congress.
"Today I have reached a difficult personal decision. I will not be a candidate for Speaker of the 106th Congress," Gingrich said in a written statement released Friday evening.
Gingrich told friends it is unlikely that he will return at all when Congress reconvenes in January, but is not ruling out that possibility altogether. Gingrich did say during a series of phone calls informing members of the Republican caucus of his decision that he will not serve out his full two-year term in the 106th Congress.
Gingrich's move came as a shock, as the speaker had been fighting to keep his top job up until Friday afternoon.
Sources say Gingrich made the choice when he was told as many as 30 Republicans would refuse to vote for him on the floor of the House. Another close associate of Gingrich said the speaker did not want to be the center of attention and distract his party for the next two years.
"The Republican conference needs to be unified and it is time for me to move forward," Gingrich's statement said.
Rumors of a leadership shakeup surfaced quickly after Tuesday's election when the GOP suffered a surprising loss of five seats in the party's slim House majority. Just weeks before, Republicans had been confident they could add to their majorities in the House and Senate.
Earlier Friday, Gingrich's longtime friend and ally, Rep. Bob Livingston, announced he would challenge Gingrich for the speakership.
With his party in turmoil, Gingrich has been closeted at his Georgia home, calling dozens of colleagues to assess whether he could survive the latest leadership challenge.
Though he received support from members of the caucus he spoke with by phone, Gingrich only reached 40 to 50 people, indicating that many were not returning his calls.
Gingrich, the chief architect of GOP "Contract With America," has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since he steered his party to the majority in 1994 and took control of the speaker's gavel.
Over the past year, though, Gingrich had started to reverse his extremely low favorability ratings, which climbed from a low point of 24 percent to the 30 percentage point range. A recent CNN poll gave him a favorability rating of 42 percent.
The speaker has also served as a political foil to President Bill Clinton, who praised Gingrich's service to the country in a statement Friday, calling him a "worthy adversary, leading the Republican party to a majority in the House."
"Despite our profound differences, I appreciate those times we were able to work together in the national interest, especially Speaker Gingrich's strong support for America's continuing leadership for freedom, peace and prosperity in the world," Clinton said.
Who will replace Gingrich?
The next task for the Republican party is to find a replacement who can speak for the disparate elements of the party. With a caucus ranging from the extremely conservative to the moderate, the GOP could have a hard time deciding on a consensus candidate.
Gingrich alluded to that challenge, saying, "I urge my colleagues to pick leaders who can both reconcile and discipline, who can work together and communicate effectively."
Livingston is not the only person who is likely to compete for Gingrich's soon-to-be vacant post. Rep. James Talent of Missouri is reported to be considering a run, and five or six other contenders could easily make a run, too.
Other possibilities include Rep. Bill Archer, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who authored the proposed Republican tax cut, and moderate Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington.
All players have until November 18 to line up support within the caucus, when the Republican conference will meet to select its leaders for the 106th Congress. But it could take longer than that to pick a successor.
Earlier Friday, Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent announced he is seeking to replace House Majority Leader Dick Armey in the No. 2 House leadership post. "On November 3rd the Republican party hit an iceberg. And I think the question that is before our conference today is whether we retain the crew of the Titanic," said Largent, an ex-pro football player and member of the Hall of Fame.
Delivering a scathing criticism of the current GOP leadership, Largent said, "Clearly the last two years are nothing to be proud of."
"We've had a leadership vacuum for four years in Washington, D.C., that has basically been blown about by the winds of public opinion polls and focus groups as opposed to relying upon a standard and principle ... that define the Republican party. That has been the reason we've had conflict within our own conference."
Armey, meanwhile, has sent a damage control letter to Republican members outlining the issues in his campaign to retain his seat. "We need to rekindle the spirit of the Contract with America," he wrote, "We must craft a clear, powerful Agenda 2000."
Gingrich and Armey were not the only GOP leaders in the cross hairs as Rep. George Radanovich of California informed Ohio's Rep. John Boehner that he planned to run for chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 post Boehner now holds.
Livingston, a high ranking and well respected member of the Republican Party, could have posed the most serious challenge yet to Gingrich. He said for his party to succeed in the 106th Congress the GOP will be "stick to our principles and set reasonable goals for ourselves."
Livingston lavished praise on his "dear friend" Gingrich, crediting him with giving Republicans in 1994 their first majority in 40 years. But the Louisiana Republican said he has the talent to both energize the party's base and run the day-to-day affairs of the GOP conference.
"Revolutionizing takes some talents, many talents," said Livingston. "My friend Newt Gingrich brought those talents to bear and put the Republicans in the majority. Day-to-day governing takes others. I believe I have those talents."
As speaker, Livingston said he can do a better job than Gingrich at "making sure that the trains run on time" and "assessing, setting, and articulating a practical agenda."
Gingrich's resignation does not necessarily leave Livingston as the front-runner, though. At six foot, five inches, the chairman is an imposing figure, respected for his steadfast fiscal conservatism but also known for his hot temper. Livingston's willingness to deal with Democrats could be considered to be a liability by some hard-nose Republicans.
Since election day Republicans have been playing the blame game, with more and more Republicans piling on to the "dump the leadership" bandwagon.
Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona predicted Friday that there was enough Republican opposition to Gingrich's leadership to deny him a new term. Salmon, an Arizona Republican elected Tuesday to a third term, said at least seven Republican members of the House will not vote to re-elect Gingrich as speaker. "There may be as many as 30 or 40," he said on NBC's "Today" show. "I know there are at least seven."
"Four years ago we won the Super Bowl (the 1994 Republican wins)," Salmon said. "We haven't had a winning season since. We've got to change coaches or we'll lose our franchise."
Rep. Bob Barr, one of President Bill Clinton's harshest critics, said Friday the national leadership of the Republican Party is having "some serious problems in terms of defining and delivering a consistent message" and there need to be changes in personnel.
Barr, whose Georgia district is next to Gingrich's, said, "the current team, I don't think, will remain nor should it."
CNN's Ann Curley, David Ensor, Bob Franken and John King contributed to this report.
Friday, November 6, 1998
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