Not quite king of the Hill



Rick Hill finds life after Newt

Montana's representative chooses sides in GOP leadership battles

When the 223 Republicans who will be sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives in January gathered this month to elect their leaders, many faced dilemmas similar to those confronted by Montana's Rep. Rick Hill.

In conversation with the Independent, Hill put a brave face on the internal battles for control of the Grand Old Party. Even as Louisiana's Rep. Bob Livingston clinched Speaker Newt Gingrich's old job and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texan, stood unchallenged, two other contentious battles-for majority leader and party conference chair-sparked furious fights for loyalty.

Hill ultimately voted for all but one of the winners. Livingston's ascension was all but a given, and DeLay has long been one of the GOP's most feared enforcers. The real fight for Hill's support came in the majority leader race. Hill voted for incumbent Dick Armey of Texas, but only after intense lobbying from incumbent bigwigs persuaded him to drop early support for Oklahoma ultra-conservative Steve Largent's bid for the party's second-highest position.

Rep. Rick Hill

Hill broke with the intra-party majority in the race between Oklahoma's Rep. J.C. Watts and Ohio's Rep. John Boehner for conference chair, the party's fourth-highest parliamentary position.

Hill threw his weight to Boehner, but Watts won. Despite Hill's support for the since-rejected incumbent, Hill press secretary Dan Dubray notes Montana's congressman has worked well with Watts in the past.

It's Hill's inclination to support Largent, a former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver turned conservative grenade chucker, that gives an indication just where Hill comes down on the divisive "20 percent" of the issues-ranging from arts funding to abortion-that Hill himself says divides the Republican caucus.

Largent and Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a relative moderate from the affluent Seattle suburb of Bellevue, both challenged Dick Armey, who's reportedly just not conservative enough for some Republicans. Dunn, who has been described as the most powerful woman in Congress and as a possible future Speaker of the House, faded fast in the face of Largent's conservative insurgency, leaving the born-again Christian NFL all-timer to face Armey.

Both Largent and Dunn staked claims to Hill's support, as did Armey. "They're all very good friends of mine," Hill says. "I consider Jennifer Dunn almost to be a mentor. She really showed me the ropes as a freshman congressman. Steve Largent came out during my re-election campaign, and Dick Armey came to Montana as well."

While Armey ultimately prevailed 127-95, Largent's strong showing indicates just how hard newly minted Speaker Livingston will have to work to bridge political divides within the GOP. According to Dubray, Hill initially told Largent he had his vote. After Armey and his allies made strong personal pleas to Hill, however, he had a change of heart.

Largent won election in the "Republican Revolution" of '94, and remains one of the staunchest conservatives in the House. Roll Call, a daily paper focused on congressional affairs, summed up Largent's tenure on Capitol Hill with the prediction, "Next stop: Ghengis Khan."

Like Hill, Largent draws high marks from conservative special interest groups like the Christian Coalition and American Conservative Union. He's opposed federal funding for the arts, called homosexuality an "evil practice" and is solidly pro-life. In conversation, Hill stresses his ability to work with the realigned party leadership, as well as the party's viability in the face of its sharply reduced majority. He also downplays the significance of right-wing uprisings like Largent's candidacy.

"Republicans are united, I think, on about 80 percent of the issues," Hill says, insisting that his fractious caucus can survive post-election ideological cat fights. "We're not so united on about 20 percent of the issues. So there are certain things we can unite around. The American people perceive us as the party of reform, so we can work on reforming taxation, education and regulation."

Despite press reports, Hill describes the demise of Gingrich and subsequent scramble for power as far from cataclysmic. In fact, he says, the turmoil was to be expected after the election made the GOP the first majority party to lose seats in a mid-term poll in 64 years.

"Leadership had to take responsibility for the results of the election," he says. "We should have picked up seats and it looked, up until the last minute, like we would pick up seats. I think there were some tactical errors made.

"The majority of Americans and the majority of Montanans support the ideals of the Republican Party. So when you don't win an election in which you have the support of the people on the issues, obviously someone has to take responsibility. A lot of people identified us, not with the issues, but with Newt. He'd become a polarizing personality."

Livingston, in Hill's estimation, is perfectly positioned to set a more effective course. Hill says that Livingston's role as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which helps set the House's spending priorities, has made him perform the delicate balancing act between conservative principles and legislative realities many times.

"Every single member of Congress has a working relationship with him," Hill says. "I've worked closely with him on a number of very important issues, in particular on the Crown Butte closure, where we secured coal transfers to the state.

"The fact that the administration has tried to rescind that deal, and the fact that Bob and I have worked to prevent that from happening, has meant we've developed a good working relationship."

Hill predicts that Livingston will play a much more subtle, deal-making role than Gingrich. "I think Bob will represent a return to a more traditional Speaker's role, with less of a public profile," Hill says. "The Speaker has tended to work more behind the scenes to keep things running, working with different parties and with groups within their own party.

"As appropriations chairman, Bob has done a masterful job, and those can be some of the most contentious issues."


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