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Democrats praised Rep. William Gray, D-Pa., for his congressional service and then immediately began scrambling for his job as the party's No. 3 man in the House.

Gray, 49, a seven-term congressman from Philadephia, announced Thursday he will be leaving the House and his job as assistant Democratic leader in September to become president of the United Negro College Fund."This new challenge will allow me to continue the mission of fostering positive change and growth in the area of education," said Gray, adding that only "an organization as vital and future-oriented as the UNCF could have persuaded me to consider" leaving Congress.

Gray said he will remain in Congress until his term ends on Aug. 5, and will join UNCF, which is in the midst of a $250 million fund-raising campaign, on Sept. 3. Neither he nor UNCF officials would disclose his new salary.

The immediate challengers for Gray's position which some day could lead to the House speakership were two other members of party's leadership - Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., chief deputy whip, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Others still could come forward by the

time the party elects a successor but Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., said one leadership member often mentioned - Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Committee - would not run.

Foley said the departure of Gray, the highest ranking elected black in the federal government, would "leave a great vacancy in the House leadership" and said his 12 years in the House were "marked by achievement and distinction of service."

"Bill Gray will be remembered here for his leadership on issues ranging from South Africa and the federal budget to transportation policy and civil rights," said Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., House Democratic leader.