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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 ThornberryOvernight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Chamber of Commerce endorses former White House physician Ronny Jackson for Congress Overnight Defense: Senate passes stopgap spending bill hours before shutdown deadline | Brief military mentions in chaotic first Trump, Biden debate | Lawmakers grills Pentagon officials over Germany drawdown 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 ChabotDemocrats, GOP fighting over largest House battlefield in a decade Republican fears grow over rising Democratic tide Speaker Pelosi, House Democrats leave town, fail the American people 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 WickerBipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Senate Republicans offer constitutional amendment to block Supreme Court packing Government efforts to 'fix' social media bias overlooks the destruction of our discourse 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 DoggettCongress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Trump order on drug prices faces long road to finish line MORE (Texas), Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleHillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump House Democrats slam FCC chairman over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Hillicon Valley: Twitter tightens rules before election | Intelligence chief briefed lawmakers on foreign influence threats | Democrats launch inquiry into Pentagon's moves on a national 5G network MORE (Pa.), Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeePocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair Grand jury charges no officers in Breonna Taylor death Hillicon Valley: Murky TikTok deal raises questions about China's role | Twitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias | House approves bill making hacking federal voting systems a crime MORE (Texas) and Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenWhy prevailing wage reform matters for H-1B visas Fears grow of voter suppression in Texas Business groups start gaming out a Biden administration 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 ClintonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden face off for last time on the debate stage Trump expected to bring Hunter Biden's former business partner to debate Davis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before 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 StockmanInmates break windows, set fires in riot at Kansas prison Wife of imprisoned former congressman cites COVID-19 risk in plea to Trump for husband's freedom Consequential GOP class of 1994 all but disappears 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 John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 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.