Ex-House Speaker Tom Foley dies

Catalina Camia, USA TODAY

Former House speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat who lost his congressional seat in the 1994 Republican revolution, has died He was 84 years old and had been in declining health.

Foley's death was confirmed by a House Democratic aide, who asked for anonymity pending a statement from the family.

Foley, also a former U.S. ambassador to Japan in the Clinton administration, had been in declining health for a while and was in hospice care at his home in the nation's capital. He represented eastern Washington state in the U.S. House of Representatives for 15 terms, from 1965 to 1995.

Foley's defeat in 1994 was historic: He was the first House speaker to lose re-election to his congressional seat since the Civil War.

Known for his ability to strike compromise, Foley was the highest-profile Democrat turned out of office as voters swept Newt Gingrich and a Republican majority into power. It was the first time in four decades that Republicans controlled the House, and voters kept the GOP in control until Democrats regained power in the 2006 elections.

An ardent opponent of term limits, Foley lost to political neophyte George Nethercutt as the Republican lawyer portrayed the Democrat as out of touch with his Spokane-based district. Washington state had enacted congressional term limits in 1992, but Foley was among those who challenged the law in court.

The NRA also targeted Foley for defeat because he supported an assault weapons ban enacted into law that year, reversing years of support for the Democrat when he opposed gun control measures.

"It is clear there is a sense on the part of Americans across the country that they are dissatisfied with the pace of change," Foley told his supporters on election night in 1994.

Before his rise to the top of Democratic leadership, Foley served as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee from 1975 to 1980. He helped open foreign markets to U.S. products, including the wheat and cherries grown in his home state.

Foley became House speaker in 1989 when Gingrich and his GOP allies brought ethics charges against Jim Wright, which forced the Texan to resign and decry the "mindless cannibalism" of partisanship that had pervaded Congress.

When he was speaker, Foley was part of a deal that led then-president George H.W. Bush to break his "read my lips, no new taxes" promise and raise taxes. In exchange, Foley and then-Senate majority leader George Mitchell vowed to cut spending.

Foley ushered institutional changes in the House after an internal post office and banking scandal in the

late 1980s and early 1990s, even though it drew criticism to his wife, Heather, his unpaid chief of staff.

In his last term, Foley helped the House pass then-president Bill Clinton's first budget - even though the legislation had drawn fire from conservative Democrats who wanted more deficit reduction. Foley also supported Clinton's push for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), despite opposition from labor unions and the speaker's own top lieutenants, Dick Gephardt and David Bonior.

After leaving Congress, Foley practiced international law at the venerable firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

Clinton tapped Foley to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan, a high-profile diplomatic post that has been a capstone for prominent American politicians such as former vice president Walter Mondale and ex-Senate majority leaders George Mitchell and Howard Baker.

Foley served as ambassador from 1997 to 2001, and returned to the nation's capital to resume his law practice.

As it became publicly known that Foley was ailing, his Washington state colleagues offered a "living tribute" to his life and achievements at a Spokane theater that was videotaped and sent to him.

"Tom is a true legend," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in remarks she posted on YouTube in July. "He worked with everybody to get things done for our state and for our country."


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