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Consequential GOP class of 1994 all but disappears

Twenty-five years ago Friday, 367 Republicans running for Congress lined up on the Capitol steps on a clear September day weeks before the midterm elections to sign the Contract with America.

Seventy-three were sworn in a few months later as part of the first Republican House majority in 40 years — and one of the most consequential groups of newcomers in modern political history.

Only three of those Republicans remain in Congress.

One is Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (Texas), the only House Republican to serve every day since the 1994 election. He’s declined to say whether he will run for reelection in 2020.

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Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit Top GOP lawmaker touts 'more flexible' PPP loans in bipartisan proposal MORE (Ohio) also remains in the House, but missed a term after losing reelection in 2008 and winning again in 2010.

Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerThis week: Congressional leaders to meet with Biden amid GOP reckoning Biden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push Biden visits local Mexican restaurant to highlight relief program MORE (Miss.) served seven terms in the House after his 1994 election. He was then appointed to the Senate and has been there ever since.

Four Democrats first elected in 1994 still hold their seats: Reps. Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettBattle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers Biden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states MORE (Texas), Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleCongressional CEO grillings can't solve disinformation: We need a public interest regulator Hillicon Valley: Another Big Tech hearing | Cyber Command flexes operations | Trump's social media site in the works Lawmakers vent frustration in first hearing with tech CEOs since Capitol riot MORE (Pa.), Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeVictims' relatives hold Capitol Hill meetings to push police reform Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations MORE (Texas) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenCapitol Police watchdog calls for boosting countersurveillance This week: Congressional leaders to meet with Biden amid GOP reckoning Capitol Police watchdog back in spotlight amid security concerns MORE (Calif.).

While their membership fades, the legacy left by the Republican class of 1994, which gave Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) the Speaker’s gavel and helped impeach President Clinton four years later, remains imprinted on Congress and the nation’s politics.

After decades of Democratic dominance, the new members elected in 1994 proved the GOP could win the House after years in the political wilderness. A quarter century after the signing of the Contract with America, both parties are regularly tussling for control of the House.

“For decades, people thought it was going to be a Democratic House forever. Since then, both parties have taken turns. You’ve seen the difference that election made,” said former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), who won a House seat in 1994. “It changed the paradigm. Suddenly, the House is going to be competitive every cycle.”

When the lawmakers signed Gingrich’s contract, Republicans had no experience running the legislative branch. The last Republican Speaker of the House, Joseph Martin, had died 26 years before Gingrich took control.

Gingrich pledged that a new way of business was coming to Washington, seizing power from committee chairmen who had never held a gavel themselves and making himself the most powerful Speaker in generations, a trend his successors have followed.

Gingrich “was making all sorts of proclamations, and he was saying the presidency didn’t really matter. For a moment or two, we thought he might be right,” said Pat Griffin, Clinton’s director of legislative affairs at the time. “We were feeling terribly depressed, everybody was pointing fingers at everyone else.”

For the next two years, the new Republican majority forced Democrats and the Clinton White House to react to their agenda. Clinton, his reelection hopes suddenly in doubt, moved to compromise with Republicans where he could and set himself apart from an increasingly unpopular Congress — including his own party — where possible.

“We had no agenda, and when we realized we didn’t have an agenda, there was nothing for us to initiate, and it was all reaction,” Griffin said. “Clinton, instead of playing hardball along with Democrats, triangulated, and going into ’96 got a bunch of legislation done. That pissed off a lot of Democrats.”

That triangulation, and a budget impasse that left the government shut down, gave Clinton a second term.

“My constituents in Northern Virginia elected me to protect them from Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonNever underestimate Joe Biden Joe Biden demonstrates public health approach will solve America's ills McAuliffe rising again in Virginia MORE, and two years later they reelected Bill Clinton to protect them from me,” said Tom Davis, the former Virginia congressman who rose to become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The new Republicans came from California and Maine, from Washington state and Florida and everywhere in between. They were doctors and farmers, pop stars and football players, and many had no political experience at all. Some stayed for only two years, others for decades.

Of the 73 Republican members first elected in 1994, 10 have since died. Fourteen served only one term, including giant-slayers like Michael Flanagan (Ill.) and Steve StockmanStephen (Steve) Ernest StockmanPardon talk intensifies as Trump approaches final 24 hours in office GOP senator on Trump pardons: 'It is legal, it is constitutional, but I think it's a misuse of the power' Nothing becomes Donald Trump's presidency like his leaving it MORE (Texas), who both beat Democratic committee chairmen. Three — Stockman, Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Wes Cooley (R-Ore.) — have gone to jail. Three others became governors. Six went to the Senate.

As they got to know each other, some stood out. Wicker won a competitive race to become class president, beating Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) by a single vote, according to Wicker’s campaign manager Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), another member of the class of '94. 

J.D. Hayworth, a sportscaster from Phoenix, was the larger-than-life comedian in the group. Sonny Bono, better known for his musical career than his far-right politics, couldn’t say no to a constant barrage of colleagues asking him to appear at their fundraisers. NFL Hall of Famer Steve Largent (R-Okla.) led a clique of other members who had played football at the collegiate level.

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Together, they represented the nexus of an old generation of politics giving way to the new. Moderates like Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), Tom LathamThomas (Tom) Paul LathamConsequential GOP class of 1994 all but disappears Lawmakers pay tribute to Rep. Latham Gun control group targets Grassley staffer running for House seat MORE (R-Iowa) and Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) harkened back to an era of civility and compromise in politics. Firebrands like Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), Linda Smith (R-Wash.) and Bob Barr (R-Ga.) seemed to presage the Tea Party, and even President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE’s jarring approach to political warfare.

“The party was realigned, and even then I felt kind of out of sorts with the Republican caucus,” said Davis, a member of the moderate faction. “This was the first time talk radio and the polarizing effect of media really played a role.”

Even as Gingrich cemented control of the congressional agenda within the Speaker’s office, the ideological diversity of the new majority flummoxed him at times.

“I can remember meeting after meeting after meeting where Newt’s trying to get to 218 [votes], and he’s got 45 moderates from New England who are Republicans,” said Wamp, who has acted as the unofficial historian for the class. “The class of ’94 was a very diverse class. And you don’t see that anymore.”

One thing that did bring so many disparate members together was their loathing of federal spending and the rising national debt. In 1997 they passed a balanced budget for the first time in decades, and a rising chorus within the majority wanted to end earmarks, though it would take another 16 years to cancel the practice.

That legacy has faded, and a Republican majority that once shut down the government over rising debts most recently voted in lockstep to cut taxes and boost deficits even during a decade-long economic recovery.

“We were interested in debt and deficits, and today there’s no interest in debt and deficits. It’s really sad,” Wamp said. “The priorities in Congress today are set two years at a time. We looked more generational: What’s a good 10-year plan, not a two-year plan.”

--This report was updated at 2:55 p.m.