- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

House Democrats, whose leadership rifts normally don't attract much attention as the minority party, have been forced to confront questions about control of their caucus if Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt becomes the vice presidential nominee.
With many Democrats already upset about the prospect of Mr. Gephardt abandoning their campaign to take back the House, Minority Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan added fat to the fire late last week by calling several media outlets with the message that he was "ready to lead" if Mr. Gephardt departs.
Some in the party interpreted it as a power play by Mr. Bonior to set himself up to become speaker by encouraging Mr. Gephardt, of Missouri, to join Mr. Gore's ticket.
"That's not true," responded Bonior spokesman Fred Clarke. "It was misinterpreted, what we were doing. Right now [Mr. Bonior] is focused on taking back the House in November."
Mr. Gephardt sought to quell speculation among his colleagues about the vice presidency by calling a meeting late last week with Mr. Bonior; Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the House Democrats; Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, a friend of Mr. Gore's.
"Most people are taking Dick [Gephardt] at his word that he's not going to do it," said a senior House Democratic leadership aide, who insisted that last week's episode did not harm the working relationship between Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Bonior.
Still, the aide acknowledged of the latest leadership questions for Democrats, "There are so many complicated decisions, nobody really wants to make them."
The uncertainty and speculation clearly are unwanted distractions for House Democrats, who have a $15 million advantage over Republicans in campaign cash on hand and must win just six more seats to regain the majority.
"I'm not even going to talk about it," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said in response to questions about support for Mr. Bonior as speaker. "I'm running for [majority] whip. Beyond that, I'm not going to speculate."
Mr. Hoyer said he has "mixed emotions" about the possibility of Mr. Gephardt becoming Mr. Gore's running mate.
"I think Dick Gephardt is the best possible candidate [for vice president]," Mr. Hoyer said. "But he will be one of the best speakers in the history of the House."
Underlying Democrats' nervousness is the belief of some conservatives in the party that Mr. Bonior would be too liberal to lead them as speaker. But the senior Democratic leadership aide said Mr. Bonior would still have the inside track to the job.
"It would be an open question, but [Mr. Bonior] would be a highly, highly prohibitive favorite," the aide said. "That some conservatives are uncomfortable with him doesn't mean he wouldn't have majority support. Bonior has worked very hard in his position. It would be very unusual for someone who's spent so much time in the vineyards not to come in with the crop."
Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said if Mr. Gephardt departed he would support Mr. Bonior for speaker "because he's a … good man."
Mr. Gephardt told reporters this week that he does not want the job of vice president, but he does not rule it out.

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