Armey's exit triggers fight for GOP direction

Majority leader's announcement that he will retire from House could open the window for moderate Republicans.

The decision of Texas tough guy Dick Armey to hang up his spurs sets up what many House members see as the biggest leadership fight in a generation - and a chance for the Republican Party to cast a softer image before the 2002 campaign.

It's also an opening for House Republicans to develop better working relations with the White House, which has often struggled with Mr. Armey and another powerful Texan, House majority whip Tom DeLay.

A former economics professor, Mr. Armey drafted the Contract With America in 1994. Then, as majority leader, he managed to get most of it through the House in 93 days. He also won support for a base-closing law, one of the toughest issues in Capitol Hill politics.

But his tenure as leader has been rough ever since. His abrasive style and ambiguous role in the 1997 coup attempt against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich estranged many colleagues. His last fight to hold the job of majority leader, in 1998, ran to an unusual three ballots. "Armey was at his best as an oppositional insurgent," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst with the Hudson Institute. "He wanted to foment a revolution, but in an evenly divided House, compromise was in order."

A master of country-and-western lyrics, Armey drives a pickup truck and muses about fishing and football. In his early years in Congress, he was known for sleeping in the House gym or his office. Cartooned by critics as a champion of the rich, he hasn't built up personal wealth in his years in public life.

He did, however, become a champion fundraiser for others - the essential element of any leadership struggle on Capitol Hill in the 1990s. Armey's Majority Leader's Fund PAC, a political action committee, raised $733,558 for GOP candidates in the 1995-96 election cycle.

The free-for-all to succeed him could draw millions into GOP campaign coffers. Last month, Democrat Nancy Pelosi spent upwards of $1 million to win her House leadership berth, and the GOP tab could go much higher. The list of those seeking to move up the ladder includes:

• Tom DeLay (R) of Texas. Arguably the most powerful (and feared) House whip ever, it was DeLay who pushed his lieutenant, Dennis Hastert, to stand for Speaker. Known as "the hammer," DeLay has also developed close ties to business lobbyists, which he dubs his "K Street Cabinet."

• Rob Portman (R) of Ohio. A fast-rising GOP star, he chairs a Republican leadership group and maintains close ties to the White House. He served in the first Bush administration, and advised George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

• David Dreier (R) of California. An early Bush supporter, the powerful Rules Committee chairman is one of the GOP's most articulate spokesmen, especially on TV. He has strong ties to the high-tech community and led last week's successful fight on free trade.

• Jennifer Dunn (R) of Washington. She fought Armey for the majority leader post in 1998, and has since built a reputation among conservatives as a tax-cutter. She's best known for wanting to abolish the estate tax.

• Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri. First elected in 1996, he was picked by DeLay to take over Speaker Hastert's old job as chief deputy whip. A skilled compromiser, he served as the Bush campaign's liaison to House Republicans.

And the list of those contemplating a run could include dozens more. "What we're about to see is a real donnybrook...," says Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois. "These leadership positions only open up once in a person's career here in the House."

He and many other GOP moderates would like to see a party leadership that is more inclusive, especially with the House so closely divided. "The party needs somebody who can really bring our conference together and be helpful to the president," says Mr. LaHood.

There are also big ideological issues at stake. Armey and retiring GOP Sen. Phil Gramm, also of Texas, represented the hard core of the Republican drive to shrink the size and scope of government. They championed a Texas-brand of free-market economics.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, though, the two have watched public opinion shift on their defining issue. The 10-year projected surpluses have all but vanished, and Congress is on a record spending track. At the same time, the public is more inclined to support a bigger government role in issues like airline safety and education.

"This issue will never be settled," says Mr. Gramm. "There are only two ideas in political discourse: government and freedom. We've had great victories, but it's all going to have to be fought again."

The new leadership fight could also change the face of the Republican Party heading into 2002. If DeLay were to run for the post and win, it would mark a return to Gingrich-style, tough partisan politics. Several of the others would likely mark a more conciliatory approach and tighter ties to the White House.

Many Democrats, in fact, would like to see DeLay as majority leader. Already, some are gearing up to take back the House by targeting his hard-line policies and spear-throwing style. Democrats think DeLay is vulnerable for his insistence on an economic stimulus plan mainly targeted at helping big corporations. "You'll see a lot of 30-second TV spots on this issue come next October," says Democratic strategist James Carville.

Still, some doubt DeLay will run: A job shift would be a demotion, given the power he has already amassed as majority whip.

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