1997 GOP coup is talk of 2012 primary

The 1997 attempted coup by House Republicans against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich has been thrust into the spotlight of this year’s battle for the GOP presidential nomination.

The topic is sparking questions about what happened 15 years ago, why House Republicans wanted Gingrich ousted, why so few support him now and what role Rep. John Boehner, now Speaker, played in the botched attempt.

The story of the secret plot, first reported by The Hill’s Sandy Hume, rocked Washington. And although Gingrich survived in 1997, he was politically maimed, resigning in 1998 after Republicans lost seats in the midterm elections. Boehner (R-Ohio) was also removed from his No. 4 leadership post. 

For this article, The Hill interviewed Republican lawmakers and aides who served in the House during that tumultuous time. 

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Some talked at length. Others declined to speak about a political event repeatedly cited by Gingrich’s rivals for the GOP nomination. Both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have said Gingrich’s troubles in running the House in the 1990s clearly show he is not fit to lead on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Of the 81 Republican lawmakers who served with Gingrich and are still in Congress, only two have endorsed him for president. Twenty-two are backing Romney. 

Boehner, who has remained neutral in the GOP presidential primary, last month denied that he was part of a group of rising Republican stars who tried to remove Gingrich from his post.

“That was someone’s rumor — that was an inaccurate rumor,” Boehner said in December. 

Some viewed Boehner’s comments as an attempt to downplay perceived friction between the Speaker and former Speaker — a friction that would embarrass both men if Gingrich were to win his party’s presidential nomination. 

Yet Boehner was part of the leadership team that sought to get rid of Gingrich. The Hill’s initial article in 1997 and interviews over the last week indicate that Boehner was apprised of the effort, but was not leading the charge. 

The lawmakers in leadership who were deeply involved in the coup were former Reps. Dick Armey (R-Texas), Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.). All three declined to comment.

Former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) told The Hill that “Boehner was aware of it, but Boehner was not a central player.”

He added that that “leadership was dragged into it.” Now the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, Scarborough said the coup started with a group of 11 rank-and-file Republicans, including himself. 

Scarborough provides many details of the Gingrich coup effort in his book, Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day. In it, he acknowledges that he was a source for The Hill’s original article. 

Ex-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) echoed Scarborough, but pointed out that Boehner was looking for a way up the leadership ladder.

“Boehner was licking his chops,” Ney said.

Former aides and lawmakers provided differing recollections about who did what back then.

“You could put them all on a lie detector test and they would all tell different stories and they would all pass,” said a former House Republican leadership aide who requested anonymity. 

What is clear is that there was unrest in the GOP conference. Coming off President Clinton’s successful 1996 reelection, the mishandling of a federal government shutdown and Gingrich’s continuing ethics and media flaps, many Republicans were frustrated with the Speaker that summer.

“All of those things really exhausted people,” said John Feehery, a partner at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, who is neutral in the GOP presidential primary. “People were just sick and tired of his leadership.”

Feehery, also a columnist for The Hill, was DeLay’s communications director at the time.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has not backed a candidate in the 2012 primary, said Gingrich was “self-centered” as Speaker and lambasted his management style. King said Gingrich would tell members what books to read over congressional recesses, rubbing many of them the wrong way. 

Meetings on how to handle Gingrich soon sprouted up in 1997 among pockets of GOP lawmakers.

“The leadership, I know, was getting incredibly frustrated. They were saying it openly in the conference. They were saying it openly in the media,” said former Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.). “This was brewing months ahead.”

Some Republicans, including Scarborough and former Reps. Steve Largent (Okla.) and Matt Salmon (Ariz.), were fed up with Gingrich’s compromises with Clinton. Gingrich, still smarting from public fallout from the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, told his Republican colleagues that he needed to broker deals with the president. 

On the campaign trail over the last several months, Gingrich has touted the Balanced Budget Act he negotiated with Clinton as well as his role pushing welfare reform to passage.

A breaking point came in the spring of 1997 when a group of GOP rebels defeated a spending bill that sought to fund the legislative branch.

While Republican lawmakers begrudgingly understood the need to find common ground with Clinton on some issues, they expressed exasperation that the GOP-led Congress failed to make major cuts to its own budget.

Soon thereafter, complaints about Gingrich were being embraced by Armey and DeLay. Some said they initially tried to remedy the situation before it got out of hand. But others noted that Gingrich’s lieutenants were an ambitious bunch and sensed an opportunity. 

“Everybody who sat down at the leadership table with Newt was trying to position themselves to be the next Speaker,” said a former GOP lawmaker.

Leadership had split with Gingrich a month before the coup over the issue of how to handle a disaster-relief bill.

“There was a meeting with the leadership where there was a consensus decision on what direction to take. Then, at some point, Newt announced publicly that he was going to do something else,” said a former House GOP leadership aide. “Pretty soon after that the meetings started. It made people think, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

Things came to a head when DeLay met with a group of rebels on July 10, 1997, in then-Rep. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) office. That gathering of the insurgents followed high-level meetings that included DeLay, Armey, Paxon and Boehner that week, according to The Hill’s July 1997 article. 

Souder was in Graham’s office that night. Preparations were already under way among the insurgents to oust Gingrich, such as drafting a resolution and taking a whip count. 

“I am the one who asked DeLay, ‘Would you go to the floor [with] us?’ ” Souder said. “He said ‘Yes.’ But I knew Tom well enough to know that in his eyes, he regretted it the second he said it.”

With leadership supposedly on board, Souder then became an organizer to take Gingrich down.

“I was given the list and ...  went around and rounded up signatures for the floor petition,” Souder said. 

Souder said he supports Santorum in the presidential race. 

The Speaker soon caught wind of the plot and met with his leadership team. They discussed their problems, and Gingrich managed to maintain his hold on the Speaker’s gavel.

In retrospect, many say the coup was not well planned.

“It was not really well thought out. It was kind of a Keystone Kops moment,” Feehery said. 

Several said alcohol was a factor.

“I think there was too much wine, too much alcohol, and that helped bring it off the deep end,” said Jack Howard, who was then Gingrich’s policy director. 

Souder disputed that notion. The former lawmaker said many of the rebels were “not big drinkers,” and that “while the meeting was late at night, and some leaders were known to enjoy drinking after sessions, Tom DeLay was fine the night of the coup.”

Gingrich’s presidential campaign referred questions about the coup to former Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.), a major surrogate for the former Speaker’s presidential campaign.  

Walker, who left Congress in January of 1997, said a number of the House GOP leaders were “personally ambitious” and by then, sophomore members from the class of 1994 were growing antsy. 

“Most of them had term-limited themselves. They were anxious… .”

Armey’s office alerted Gingrich’s staff about the coup, according to Walker, who maintained that Boehner wasn’t involved in the effort.

“John had been a good soldier,” Walker said.

Walker said Romney’s attacks on Gingrich’s resignation as Speaker “is an extreme distortion of Newt’s record and history.”

— Andres Feijoo contributed to this report.