Paxon up, Armey down: that's the upshot of the last tumultuous 48 hours on Capitol Hill. Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.) appears to have resigned from the House Republican leadership on principle—it was the only honorable thing to do after joining an abortive coup against the man who had appointed him to his post. "He was motivated by integrity," said one leadership aide. The other Republican leaders involved in the coup have performed less admirably, trying to weasel their way out of taking responsibility. As the impact of Thursday's events sinks in among House Republicans, the contrast is bound to work in Paxon's favor. At the same time, Paxon has separated himself from a back-biting leadership "team" that increasingly looks foolish and petty—and won't look any better after a weekend of stories about his departure.
Sandy Hume broke the story of the attempted coup in Wednesday's edition of The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. In response, Dick Armey's (Tex.) office protested too much: "House Majority Leader Dick Armey made the following comment upon reading the wild inaccuracies and bizarre mischaracterization printed in The Hill today: 'Any and all allegations that I was involved in some ridiculous plot to oust the Speaker are completely false, and, in fact, ludicrous . . .' " Numerous sources, as well as today's events, confirm that Hume's story was in fact substantially true: there was a plot to oust Gingrich, and his deputies were involved. The plot unraveled when Armey pulled out, apparently after realizing that he didn't have the votes to succeed Gingrich as Speaker. (Julius Caesar could have used Brutuses like this.)
As for Gingrich, he's left pretty much where he's been for months: atop the G.O.P. mountain, but perched precariously. The latest attempted ouster came after the July Fourth recess, when Republican congressmen were dismayed to learn that constituents still considered Gingrich an issue; many dreaded having to deal with the problem again during the next recess. For now, however, the Republican conference is closing ranks behind Gingrich, and the impression is solidifying that his most vociferous internal critics are troublemakers and malcontents. But the Speaker may also have lost an important asset: the perception that his likely successor would be worse. Paxon could well become a rallying point for critics of the leadership: he has experience and tried to work with Gingrich and Co., but left when the futility became clear. More Republicans are comfortable with the idea of Paxon than of Armey as Speaker.
Paxon has, however, recently indicated that he would not run for Speaker for fear it would interfere with the television career of his wife, Rep. Susan Molinari (R., N.Y.). (Would CBS let her report on her husband the Speaker?) Until the last week, the speculation had been that whenever (and however) Gingrich left the Speaker's office, Armey would be his replacement with Paxon taking Armey's Majority Leader office. But now Armey's prospects of ever being Speaker are fading, and Paxon's are growing brighter.
Democrats fell just short of declaring open war on Fred Thompson's Asiagate hearings in a day of bitter partisan recrimination from the Democrat side and rebuttals from Thompson and other committee Republicans. There may not have been much light Thursday, but there certainly was a lot of heat. Thompson opened the day with a statement summing up the case Republicans have built to date, probably in response to ranking minority member John Glenn making several innocent glosses on testimony Wednesday. Then the committee heard from Paula V. Greene, who was a secretary at the offices of the Lippo-affiliated Stephens, Inc.
Greene testified that Huang came to the Stephens offices directly across the street from the Commerce Department as many as two or three times a week to use a spare office with a phone, copier, and fax machine. Greene said she would occasionally call Huang to alert him that packages—often Fed-Ex letters—had arrived for him. She said that her boss, Vernon Weaver, told her not to leave detailed phone messages when she called for Huang, and said he would call himself but he didn't want his own name showing up too often on the Commerce Department phone log. All this sounds strange, to say the least. In a moment when a lightening bolt should have struck the committee room, Sen. Bob Torricelli (D., N.J.) even said he was a little bothered by the fact that Huang was receiving packages at Stephens—in the midst, of course, of an argument that the whole thing must be entirely innocent. But Sen. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.) pointed out that if Huang were using the Stephens office purely for personal reasons, he was the only person in America who had scruples about doing personal business at his place of employment. Lieberman called the whole set of circumstances "very curious."
And Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) quickly pointed out that Huang did make personal calls from his Commerce Department office. She said she sometimes "wonders when Mr. Huang had time to do his Commerce Department business." But the fact that Huang was using the Stephens office in itself doesn't prove anything, and Democrats were quick to elicit from Greene facts that would point to an innocent explanation: Weaver was a lobbyist, and said he didn't want his name to show up in the Commerce log so he didn't appear that he was lobbying Huang; Huang usually visited Stephens during the middle of the day, suggesting there was nothing furtive in his visits; to Greene's knowledge Huang never visited at night and didn't have a key that would give him access to the Stephens office after-hours.
After lunch, Republicans called one of the committee's own staffers, a young lawyer named John Cobb, who had compiled information about Huang's Lippo contacts while at Commerce and contacts that may have related to fundraising into several charts. Some of the information was quite striking. But in a unified, hour-long attack, Democrats pounded away at the charts as a partisan smear job and baited and belittled Cobb. Max Cleland (D., Ga.) said he wasn't at the hearings to hear testimony from a "chart maker": "Why are you here?" Torricelli pointed out that some of the Lippo-related calls were, according to the persons involved in the calls, personal in nature therefore it was an injustice to include them in the charts. Then, Carl Levin (D., Mich) pointedly and ridiculously emphasizing that he wanted answers "under oath," asked if the charts weren't intended to create an "impression" (get ready for Democratic-sponsored John Cobb perjury hearings).
Thompson repeatedly came to Cobb's defense, pointing out that the information in the charts was accurate and anyone could draw any conclusion from them that he liked. Lieberman also piped up again and said of the avalanche of Lippo-Huang contacts, "that number troubles me." Also, Sen. Bob Smith (R., N.H.), who often looks as though he's napping in the hearing room, came to Cobb's defense: "It doesn't take a lot of courage for a Senator to sit here and beat up on a staff person." But when the committee took a break, White House scandal defender Lanny Davis was in the lobby criticizing Thompson for running hearings that were a "partisan slashing attack." Which suggests again, of course, that Democratic Thompson-hearing message of the day is closely coordinated between the White House and committee Democrats.
Next came the question of immunity for those Buddhist monastics involved in the Gore temple fund-raiser. Republicans have wanted to grant immunity to these low-level witnesses for weeks, but have been stalled by game-playing by Democrats and apparently the Justice Department. Glenn kept it up by suggesting he didn't want to vote on immunity until he heard from the Justice Department what its objections are to granting immunity. He said he wanted to find out more about the nuns—in what was the howler of the day—because some of them might have prior criminal records the committee didn't know about, including "bank robbery" or "murder." (Nuns!!!) By this point Thompson was in a low boil and not so obliquely suggested that Justice might be objecting to immunity to obstruct his investigation: "[There's] no question, but the Justice Department has a conflict of interest with these immunity requests. . . . [It's] part of a picture that is very very troubling as far as their credibility over there [at the Justice Department]."
So, on the verge of a complete partisan breakdown, the committee went into closed session to discuss immunity further. In private, Democrats were reportedly much more cooperative. The committee will get a briefing from Justice about the immunity requests on Monday, then vote on immunity Tuesday. Then the Democrats get to call their witnesses the rest of the week, which chiefly means Haley Barbour. The Democrats were originally going to have to wait to the end of the month, but reportedly because of scheduling conflicts the date got moved up. Barbour certainly has some explaining to do, but there is no one who is better at explaining. As one close observer of the hearings points out, Barbour could be the Thompson hearings version of Ollie North. That remains to be seen, but there's is no doubt that media interest will pick up next week: get ready for gavel to gavel coverage.
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