Emotionally spent House Democrats will be led by consensus-builder Rep. Richard Gephardt next year as they begin life as a minority party after four decades on top.
In a nearly seven-hour private session that participants said began with intensity but gradually grew subdued, lawmakers chose the Missouri Democrat and current majority leader on Wednesday to be their minority leader.He and others from this year's leadership team easily survived challenges from rivals who said the Republicans' Election Day capture of Congress demanded new chieftains to guide Democrats in 1995. Their ascension gives Democrats a group of experienced, moderate-to-liberal leaders.
Gephardt, facing gall bladder surgery Thursday, left a bed at Bethesda Naval Hospital to plead with his colleagues for the top job. Victorious, he then told reporters that he would build a large leadership structure including all wings of the party, and said he didn't think Democrats' familiar faces would hurt them with the public.
"The voters are interested in results, and they'll look to us to achieve results," he said. "That's our test."
Gephardt was challenged by Rep. Charlie Rose, D-N.C., a 55-year-old moderate who said the party needed to move toward the center and away from President Clinton. Gephardt, the favorite, easily captured the secret ballot by 150-58.
Rose was at his "folksy, charming best" when he spoke to Democrats gathering in a sealed-off House chamber, a participant said. Several who attended said he got one of the biggest laughs of the day when he told his colleagues, "The future ain't what it used to be."
But Democrats turned to Gephardt, 53, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, then became House majority leader a year later. He served under Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., who became the emblem for a Congress that voters grew to detest and was defeated in his re-election bid on Nov. 8.