Eight years ago, a junior Democratic congressman from West Texas stunned House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill by telling him he wanted the Speaker's job. Nonplussed by Charles W. Stenholm's insolence, O'Neill could only reply: "You've got to be kidding."
Stenholm's quixotic quest to oust O'Neill quickly folded. But the conservative Texan has never given up on his crusade to move the House's liberal Democratic leadership toward the center--and this year he may succeed. "As Jesse Jackson says, you need two wings to fly," notes the farmer from Stamford, Tex. "When you have a left wing flapping hard, you go in circles."
BLOCKING TACTICS. Stenholm, chairman of the House's 59-member Conservative Democratic Forum, hopes to straighten out his party's flight path before the new Congress convenes in January. After this year's throw-the-bums-out election, "he has a real opportunity to emerge as a key player in the new Congress," says Representative Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.). "Charlie has up to 70 votes that he can deliver on a number of issues." If Democrat Bill Clinton becomes President, Stenholm could be pivotal in forging bipartisan coalitions with moderate Republicans to blunt the aggressive initiatives of House liberals. And if President Bush wins, Stenholm could break ideological logjams by becoming a liaison between the House GOP and right-wing Democrats.
Either way, it would be a familiar task for the 53-year-old Stenholm. In 1981, the second-term former vocational-agriculture teacher and electric co-op president led the conservative "boll weevil" Democrats who gave President Reagan his margin of victory on crucial budget and tax votes. This spring, Stenholm stunned the leaders when he blocked their effort to divert defense spending to domestic programs. His opposition to liberal health care reform plans helped prevent any action. In June, he fell just nine votes short of winning the House approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
Emboldened, Stenholm toyed with the idea of challenging House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). But he realized that House Democrats, although unhappy with Foley's leadership, are not ready to desert their leader. "I've thrown in the towel," says Stenholm. "He has too many commitments."
Rather than trying to topple the king, Stenholm is now working hard to become a behind-the-scenes kingmaker. Through the Conservative Democratic Forum, he is contacting every Democratic House candidate to seek a commitment to the balanced-budget amendment--or to the spending cuts and tax hikes necessary to cut the deficit without a constitutional change. Stenholm also is working to build a center-right coalition on issues ranging from health care to agriculture. And he hopes to join the Class of '92's reform bandwagon with proposals to cut legislative overhead by 20%, to reorganize the House committee structure, and to eliminate duplication in committee jurisdiction.
Stenholm says he "came 'this close' to hanging it up this year in utter frustration" with capital gridlock. But the leader of the Democrats' right wing is ready for one final flight next year. "We may not succeed," he says, "but we're going to flap like heck."