House Speaker Jim Wright's defeat in the congressional pay raise controversy leaves him weakened but in no immediate danger of being knocked out of his job, say lawmakers of both parties.
"There will be some lingering resentment," said Democratic Rep. Tim Penny, a fourth-term lawmaker from Minnesota and one of only a handful of Democrats to criticize the speaker publicly for his handling of the pay-raise fight."There's going to have to be some fence-mending over the next few months before this thing is put behind us," Penny said.
But Democratic leaders in the House rallied around Wright after his attempt to win a pay raise without a vote collapsed.
"Members came to the river, stuck their toes in, and said `uh-uh,"' added Democratic Caucus Chairman William Gray, D-Pa. "Jim Wright can lead you to the river, but at some point you have to get your feet wet."
While Penny criticized Wright for advocating the raise, others complained privately that the speaker displayed too little leadership in the face of opposition to the $45,500 increase.
Others said he failed to consult with fellow Democrats in time to avert the overwhelming vote Tuesday on the House floor that killed the raise and opened the possibility that there will be no raise in the foreseeable future.
Still there was some after-the-fact sympathy for the man who not only carried the weight of the House, but also of the judiciary, the executive branch and the Senate on the pay-raise issue.
"We can't hide behind one man. We've got to go out and make an appeal to the American people," said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., a leading advocate of the raise. "We had too many people lying back letting someone else do the heavy lifting."
Democratic Whip Tony Coelho of California said any obituaries on Wright's speakership were premature.
"I was around when O'Neill was definitely out," he said in reference to the former House speaker who endured a string of setbacks early in President Reagan's term in office, but went on to serve the longest continuous term of any speaker.
"I've said repeatedly the speaker is not in trouble, should not be in trouble and could not be in trouble," Coelho added. "The only way he could be in trouble is if there were another candidate" to oppose him as speaker.
A batch of "Foley for Speaker" buttons appeared at the Capitol on Tuesday, apparently an effort by a conservative group to rub salt into Wright's wounds. But Majority Leader Thomas Foley, D-Wash., repudiated the suggestion.
Wright's lead role in the pay-raise battle brought him political heat unmatched in his controversial two-year tenure as speaker, which includes a pending ethics case.
Significantly, much of that heat came in his economically depressed home state of Texas and in his congressional district in Fort Worth, where the $45,500 raise was even harder to justify to the public than in much of the rest of the country.
An aide to Wright, John Mack, likened the speaker's position to that of a reluctant leader of a cattle drive: "We signed up for Kansas, but we didn't want to go there. Now everybody's shooting the trail boss."
Some heat was felt, as well, by House Minority Leader Robert Michel, R-Ill. A hometown newspaper article carried criticism of him for privately favoring the pay raise, but publicly voting against it.
Republicans predicted that the cost to Wright of the pay fight would be a period of extreme caution, in which the speaker would be forced to stay in the background and avoid the kinds of risky moves that have been his trademark.