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Minority Leader Michel Won't Seek Election in '94

By Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., Monday announced he would not seek re-election to a 20th term next year, marking a likely end to a line of pragmatic Republican leadership in the House and unleashing the ambitions of GOP lawmakers eager to move up.

Michel, the gentlemanly representative from prototypical Peoria since 1957, became House Republican leader in 1981 as heir to a tradition of consensus-oriented, non-ideological politics followed by his immediate predecessors, John J. Rhodes of Arizona and Gerald R. Ford of Michigan.

Recent elections have brought more confrontational conservative Republicans to the House and its leadership ranks, isolating Michel, 70, within his party.

"There's a big gap between my style of leadership and my sense of values, my whole thinking process," Michel told reporters here yesterday. "(That) is giving way to a new generation, and I accept that. (That's) probably the way it ought to be. But I was really much more comfortable operating ... (the way) we did when I first came to the Congress."

Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.), second-ranking Republican and leader of the confrontational wing, instantly became a favorite to succeed Michel. Gingrich, who for months has been saying he would run if Michel retired, scheduled an announcement for Thursday.

Another aspirant, Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., announced his candidacy after Michel spoke to reporters, and in the same room. Solomon, ranking Republican on the Rules Committee, pitched himself as being able to straddle the Michel and Gingrich wings of the House Republican caucus.

Other lawmakers were being mentioned, or mentioning themselves, as potential candidates for GOP leader or for Gingrich's job as whip. Rep. Henry Hyde (Ill.), perhaps the House's most forceful spokesman against abortion, and and Rep. Bill Archer (Texas), a fiscal conservative and ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, could enter the race. House Republicans are scheduled to elect new leaders in December 1994.

The maneuvering and speculation prompted Michel, in characteristic style, to "admonish my troops" against "a fratricidal thing" within the party. "Be very careful about how you wage your campaigns," he said. "Please, please don't let it interfere with what we ought to be doing as a unit within the Republican Party."

In the last two years, Gingrich and aggressive newcomers often have set the course of Republican strategy on issues like President Clinton's 1994 budget request and the House Bank and House Post Office scandals. And Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, a second-term member who attacked Democratic leaders in both scandals, praised Michel for "giving the troops the freedom to move on their own."

From the Democratic side of the aisle, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., issued a laudatory statement saying he and Michel possess "a shared esteem for the institution of Congress" despite political differences.

"As prevailing political philosophies have changed over the years, Bob Michel remained steadfast in his commitment to consensus in the interest of the nation and the institution of the House of Representatives," Foley said.

In San Francisco, President Clinton issued a statement saying, "He would never give my party any quarter in a partisan fight, but Bob Michel would never put his party's political interest ahead of the national interest."

Michel, who made his announcement earlier in the day at a tearful news conference in Peoria, traced his decision to retire back to election night last November. With George Bush's defeat, Michel said he no longer felt obliged to stay to help a Republican president.

Days after that election, a Michel aide confided to a reporter that Michel had run in 1992 only because he thought Republicans could win a House majority and make him the first GOP speaker since 1955. Instead, Republican gains were smaller than projected.

Monday Michel recapped his career in the political minority and said he had lost his excitment for the job. "I asked myself that. Do I really have the same zest for the job that I once had? No," he said.

But before his retirement, Michel said he looked forward to playing a key role in legislative action on free trade, health care and campaign laws in the 103 Congress. "We've got several big issues out that aren't going to get passed unless there's bipartisan support," he said.