House Speaker Newt Gingrich acted decisively to blunt a conservative conspiracy against him Thursday, ousting Rep. Bill Paxon, a key aide who was widely seen as a possible successor.
Gingrich ejected Paxon from the leadership when his loyalty to the speaker came into question. But House Republicans remained in turmoil with doubts lingering about other senior leaders.
The infighting is distracting top Republicans at a critical stage in negotiations over a sweeping tax and spending agreement with President Clinton.
At a Thursday news conference called to discuss tax cuts, Gingrich and other leaders walked away at the first question, which was on the leadership struggle, not taxes.
GOP dissidents believe Gingrich has compromised the party’s conservative agenda not only by making concessions to moderate Republicans but by giving in to President Clinton on key provisions in the budget agreement.
When asked about the likelihood of continued Republican confusion, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, answered, “We’ll all go home for the weekend, rest up, and come back and start again next week.”
Gingrich’s supporters have expressed rising anger about signs of disloyalty in the leadership ranks, while detractors mutter darkly about the focus and quality of the speaker’s leadership.
The challenges became more serious in recent days as the popular Paxon, Majority Leader Dick Armey and GOP Whip Tom DeLay, the No. 2 and 3 House Republicans, were accused of fueling dissatisfaction with Gingrich.
Several Republicans refused to accept Armey’s insistence he and the other GOP leaders played no role in the effort to topple Gingrich last week. Armey, who learned of the planned coup on Thursday, said he and the other GOP leaders averted the effort by reporting it to Gingrich on Friday morning.
“There are some legitimate questions as to whether or not they are telling the truth,” said Boehlert, a Gingrich ally.
DeLay rejected suggestions that he should join Paxon is resigning his leadership post.
“I have every intention to stay as majority whip as we continue to fulfill the Republican agenda of lower taxes and smarter government,” he said in a prepared statement. “Rumors to the contrary are not only false, they are malicious, and I wish they would cease.”
DeLay, who has never been personally close to Gingrich, is the only one of speaker’s top lieutenants who declined to deny that he was part of the deposal attempt. DeLay, who served as the leadership’s emissary to the anti-Gingrich faction, attended a pivotal meeting with the dissidents Thursday night that focused on ways to oust the speaker.
All the others - Armey, Paxon and and Ohio Rep. John Boehner - said they were aware of the conspiracy but tried to head it off, a claim that some of the conspirators themselves scoffed at.
Unlike Paxon, Armey and DeLay were elected to their leadership jobs by rank-and-file Republicans, leaving them beyond the direct reach of any leadership purge. But some Gingrich loyalists did not hide their displeasure the speaker’s inner circle.
“It troubles me a lot to have people who are close to him being anything other than loyal. It’s basically a question of trust - and it looks like that has been damaged,” said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., a Gingrich ally.
A southern Republican, who described himself as “one of the Turks” who has lost confidence in Gingrich’s leadership, accused Armey of trying to cover up his role in the failed effort to force a vote on Gingrich’s future.
“Many of us who had been involved in this knew he was lying, because we knew what had happened,” the GOP lawmaker said, insisting on anonymity to avoid possible retaliation.
A noticeably subdued Armey acknowledged the aftershocks from the abortive coup in a conference call with Texas reporters.
“Look, it was a very difficult circumstance. It was not handled with the greatest degree of finesse,” he said. But, Armey added, “I don’t have any regrets about my conduct.”
Paxon, 43, has been considered a rising star in his party since he helped engineer the Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 elections. After two terms as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he was appointed by Gingrich to chair GOP leadership meetings.
Although Paxon’s role in the failed coup remains unclear, some anti-Gingrich Republicans considered him a potential replacement for Gingrich. Armey’s detractors contend that Texan backed out of the plan when he realized that Paxon might beat him in a contest to replace Gingrich.
Paxon, who released a resignation letter about an hour after Gingrich announced the New Yorker’s departure from the leadership, acknowledged that his relationship with Gingrich had been irreparably damaged.
“I gave you my trust and my word, but since both have been cast in doubt, it is clear that I can no longer be an asset to your team in this appointed capacity,” he wrote to the speaker.
Dreier and other Gingrich loyalists said the fallout from the failed coup appears to have bolstered the speaker’s position in the party, at least temporarily. GOP lawmakers gave the speaker a standing ovation in a closed meeting Wednesday.
“The fever has not broken,” Dreier said, “but the attempt has had the opposite effect so far of what Newt’s critics had hoped for. A lot of people have rallied around him.”
By some counts, the hard-core of the disgruntled conspirators numbers only about 40 members. Perhaps another 30 are sympathetic to the idea of replacing Gingrich with the sort of anti-tax, slash-the-budget, shrink-the-government conservative that won’t back down on principle.
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