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Attempted Republican Coup: Ready, Aim, Misfire

The gang that couldn't shoot straight targets Newt Gingrich -- but a G.O.P. upstart takes the hit instead

By James Carney/Washington

With reporting by Karen Tumulty/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, July 28) -- Congressman Tom Delay, the pest-control expert from Laredo, Texas, knows all about the black art of extermination. So how did the majority whip so thoroughly botch the job he undertook two weeks ago, when he tried to eradicate a king-size Newt?

In scheming to be rid of House Speaker Gingrich, DeLay and his co-conspirators showed all the talent for intrigue of Peter Sellers in his Pink Panther days. Depending on who's doing the telling, the schemers included one, two or all three of the other House leaders ranked directly below the Speaker--majority leader Dick Armey, G.O.P. conference chairman John Boehner and leadership chairman Bill Paxon--not to mention 20 or more insurgents from the rank and file. Cooked up in secrecy, the coup collapsed before it could begin. The result was a week of backstabbing that left Gingrich weaker yet more entrenched. It could lead, as early as this week, to a complete reshuffling of his leadership team--just as negotiations with the White House on the year's most important legislation enter their critical stage. Says Florida Republican Mark Foley: "It's like a circular firing squad."

The squad has already claimed its first victim: Paxon, the most trusted of Gingrich's lieutenants. When Gingrich was launching his bid to take control of the House in 1994, he chose the New York Congressman to run the committee that holds the G.O.P.'s campaign purse strings. When ethics allegations threatened to cost the Speaker his post, he put Paxon in charge of his re-election. And whenever Newt needed someone to defend him on television, Paxon was willing to aim his happy, preppy face toward the camera. Last Tuesday, as Gingrich touted G.O.P. tax cuts under a sweltering sun, Paxon even gazed at him with the kind of adoring smile Nancy Reagan used to bestow on her husband.

Yet less than 36 hours later, Paxon was in Gingrich's office, volunteering to relinquish the leadership post that Gingrich had invented for him. "Newt," Paxon quavered, "if you want me to resign, I will." The next morning, Gingrich accepted the offer. And so it was that a G.O.P. rising star learned a bitter lesson: if you set out to kill the king, you had better make sure he's dead.

It helps to have an endgame strategy--something DeLay, Paxon and the others never thoroughly formulated. Instead, they let events overtake them. Rumors had been circulating for weeks that the so-called rebels--a fluctuating group of House Republicans, mostly from the revolutionary class of '94--were devising a way to force Gingrich out. But to do it, they needed cooperation from the top echelon.

On July 9 Armey, DeLay, Boehner and Paxon gathered for the first of several secret meetings to discuss the brewing rebellion. The next night, DeLay met with 20 rebels in the offices of Oklahoma's Steve Largent. At first, DeLay was coy. Then he warned that if the rebels were going to act, they had better do so quickly, because their plot was about to leak. "Is everybody prepared to go ahead with this?" he asked. At that point, Indiana's Mark Souder turned the question around. "Are you with us?" According to several participants, DeLay was clearly speaking for the others when he answered yes. The leaders seemed on board.

The plan was to have Armey, DeLay, Boehner and Paxon present Gingrich with a fait accompli: step aside or be voted out by parliamentary maneuver. What happened next is murky. By some accounts, when DeLay reported back to his fellow leaders later that Thursday night, he brought news that the rebels wanted Gingrich to be succeeded by Paxon, not Armey, who was next in line. Early Friday, Armey told his colleagues that he spent the night "praying with my wife" and decided he could not support the coup. "When Armey realized he wasn't going to be Speaker, he backed out," insists a knowledgeable source.

Not so, says Armey. When details of the aborted putsch broke in the July 16 edition of the scrappy weekly newspaper the Hill, he issued a statement that "any and all allegations that I was involved in some ridiculous plot to oust the Speaker [are] completely false, and, in fact, ludicrous." But later when Armey stood up in a meeting of House Republicans and declared that the Hill story was inaccurate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a rebel leader, lunged for a microphone to challenge the assertion--knocking over a chair before another member could restrain him. Later, Armey changed his story. To his utter surprise, sources close to him now claimed, he realized that several of his fellow leaders--in other words, Paxon and DeLay--had been conspiring against Newt. Asked at a press conference whether DeLay should resign, Armey remained silent. DeLay wouldn't comment on any of it. And Boehner said he'd been assessing the rebel threat, nothing more.

Gingrich no longer trusts any of them. But unlike Paxon, who served in the leadership at Newt's pleasure, the other three hold elected posts and can't be removed by the Speaker alone. Besides, Gingrich's team has just two weeks to finalize a budget and tax-cutting deal with President Clinton before the August recess. "The Speaker doesn't want to waste time figuring out the intricacies of what happened," a Gingrich aide said. "He wants to move forward."

The Speaker did have time, however, to plot his revenge--and he settled on DeLay as his next target. Privately, Gingrich told associates that he wanted to remove the whip and replace him with DeLay's chief deputy, Illinois moderate Denny Hastert. Late last week Gingrich supporters began circulating a petition calling for an emergency meeting of the House G.O.P. conference this Tuesday. At least, DeLay and the others would have to explain themselves in front of all 228 Republican members. At most, DeLay could lose his post in a vote of no confidence--the very fate the rebels considered for Gingrich.

Armey is another matter. Though not convinced of his innocence, Gingrich believes Armey suffered a crisis of conscience and refused to participate in the coup. In fact, it was Armey's chief of staff who first alerted the Speaker's office to the insurrection. Besides, even if Gingrich could replace his entire leadership, he is in many ways better off with a wounded, chastened Armey than with some rookie at his side.

Gingrich still has to worry about Paxon. By resigning, Paxon earned some respect from both Newt supporters (who considered it the honorable thing to do) and critics (who praised Paxon for not trying to bow and scrape his way back into Newt's good graces). Already, Paxon supporters are saying he's well positioned to mount another challenge to Gingrich. "Bill's stature rose because he did the right thing," said a supporter. "But he's going to have to spend some time in the desert."

The Speaker was bolstered by the failed coup, albeit temporarily. House Republicans of all stripes say they're tired of the warfare. But dissatisfaction with Newt remains high, and a survivalist strategy won't satisfy his ego for long. Which is why Gingrich himself may be searching for a way to quit. He has a cover. According to several advisers, America's most unpopular politician is thinking about stepping down as Speaker--to run for President.

One Lousy Week in the Life of Bill Paxon

Thursday, July 10: Help plot a coup; argue about who'll get Newt's job.
Friday. July 11: The coup falls apart. Go see Newt: Nice tie, Mr. Speaker!
Tuesday, July 15: Attend a photo op with Newt. Keep smiling!
Wednesday, July 16: Dodge those pesky reporters. Insist on own innocence.
Thursday, July 17: Resign from the leadership. Watch Newt take revenge.

Tough Days Ahead for His Co-Conspirators?

Tom Delay is not talking. But Newt's targeting him for revenge.