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THE CONGRESS: Replacing Hale Boggs

3 minute read

After Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs’ plane disappeared in Alaska last month, a quiet but intense battle began that could shake the entire Democratic leadership in the House. Who will replace Boggs as majority leader will not finally be decided until the House reconvenes in January. But just as important, House Speaker Carl Albert may face opposition that could make his second term as unsteady as the first.

Albert’s first two years as Speaker were distressing for many of his Democratic colleagues, who found his leadership weak and entirely too accommodating to the Administration’s Viet Nam policies. Albert’s political impotence became embarrassingly apparent when he failed to stop President Nixon, who, with the help of Democrat Wilbur Mills, tried to bestow on himself an item-by-item veto over spending programs authorized by Congress. Eight months ago, some talk of replacing Albert started circulating through the Capitol. His gentle ways and his unwillingness to assert his authority decisively left many Democrats wondering where they could find someone capable of more vigorous leadership. Challengers were not hard to find. Mills himself, head of the powerful Ways & Means Committee, was the conservatives’ favorite, but he has given up any thought of challenging Albert. A few liberal Congressmen wanted Boggs for the job. “I have been very keen for a contest over the speakership,” says one Midwestern Democrat. “And I have been in favor of having Hale move up. This thing [Boggs’ disappearance] has been a catastrophic blow. What it means is that we are apparently left without an alternative.” A sampling taken since Boggs was declared missing indicates that Albert is now safe, and will win reelection. Only Georgia’s Phil Landrum is threatening to run as an alternative.

The man most likely to replace Boggs as majority leader is Massachusetts Congressman Thomas (“Tip”) O’Neill, who is now majority whip. By his own count O’Neill has 160 votes pledged to him, more than enough to win in a showdown for the Boggs job. By tradition O’Neill is the natural successor to Boggs, who was majority whip before becoming majority leader. O’Neill, 59, has been in Congress since 1952, when he was elected to the House to replace John F. Kennedy, who had moved on to the Senate. Gregarious and quick-witted, O’Neill is considered one of the most popular men in Congress. Though an antiwar liberal, he is a machine-oriented politician with connections in both wings of the fragmented Democratic Party and can ask favors from both sides.

O’Neill’s only foreseeable opposition is Sam Gibbons of Florida. Hard-driving and ambitious, Gibbons, 52, started his campaign for Boggs’ post three days before the election. In Congress since 1962, Gibbons contends that his brand of strong leadership would give Albert the muscle he needs to compete on a more equal level with the White House. Gibbons says of Albert: “He was schooled in responding to the White House. Democrats had been in power for so long, with a Democrat in the White House and friendly people in the agencies, that we grew to be overly solicitous of the White House point of view.” For the moment, no one was looking to the Democratic House to provide a very effective counterpoise to the Republicans in the White House.

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