House Democrat steps down as minority leader

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., confirmed Thursday afternoon he would not seek another term as Democratic leader, a decision that reverberated through Democratic ranks as up-and-coming party leaders moved to fill the void created by his decision.

"After much deliberation, I have decided not to seek the post of House Democratic leader," Gephardt said in a written statement. "I understand the enormous commitment that is required by the job and I've concluded that in fairness to my friends and colleagues in the House, they need a leader for the next two years who can devote his or her undivided attention to putting our party back in the majority."

Gephardt signaled his intention Wednesday to leave leadership after Democrats lost House seats in the midterm elections. House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost of Texas immediately declared they would seek the top ranking position among House Democrats.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., will run for minority whip, according to Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen. Hoyer, an 11-term congressman, has "80 to 85 percent of the [Democratic] caucus behind him and no opponent, so it looks like he will win that position," Farnen said.

Hoyer, who easily defeated Republican Joseph Crawford on Tuesday, is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Treasury, Postal Service and General Government. He has pushed for a 4.1 percent pay raise for federal civilian employees in 2003 and has championed telecommuting as a way to improve the quality of life for federal workers.

In his eighth year as leader after more than five years as majority leader, the 13-term veteran Gephardt plans to remain in the House, at least for the moment, but there is speculation he may choose not to serve on any committees as he prepares for an expected bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination. Sources said Gephardt told Democratic members of his plans during a conference call Thursday.

According to one Democrat familiar with the call, legislators complimented him for his leadership and the call was absent of recriminations about the party's poor election performance Tuesday. "They thanked him for holding the party together during its darkest days and asked him for his advice on how we can regain the majority," the Democrat said. One aide said Gephardt met with his staff this morning, adding, "He told us he feels liberated."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who will soon be in that chamber's minority, said he was "very disappointed" with the news. "He was one of the finest Democratic leaders our country has ever produced, and I will miss him," said Daschle, who refused to endorse a replacement.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Thursday afternoon in a statement called Gephardt a "tough competitor" with an "illustrious" House career. "Dick Gephardt and I have had our fair share of policy differences," Hastert said. "But I have always admired his ability to articulate his philosophy and marveled at his tremendous work ethic."

Kellie Lunney contributed to this report.

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