WASHINGTON — Former House Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat known for his ability to forge consensus but who was a casualty of the 1994 Republican revolution, has died.
He was 84 years old and died of complications from a stroke suffered last December. His wife, Heather, told the Associated Press that he had been in hospice care at home in the nation's capital since May.
Foley, also a former U.S. ambassador to Japan in the Clinton administration, represented eastern Washington state in the U.S. House of Representatives for 15 terms, from 1965 to 1995.
"Today, America has lost a legend of the United States Congress," President Obama said in a statement, going on to praise his skill as a legislator and diplomat whose "poise and civility helped strengthen our relationship with one of our closest allies."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised his predecessor as "forthright and warm-hearted."
"Take it from the great Henry Hyde, who used to say of Tom, 'I wish he were a Republican,' " Boehner said. "With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, D-Calif., said Foley was the "quintessential champion of the common good."
"In his years leading the House of Representatives, Speaker Foley's unrivaled ability to build consensus and find common ground earned him genuine respect on both sides of the aisle," she said. "Today, our country mourns the loss of a leader whose authenticity, dedication and diplomacy will forever serve as an example to all of us who strive to make a difference through public service."
Voter outcry in 1994 elections
Foley was the highest-profile Democrat turned out of office as voters swept Newt Gingrich and a Republican majority into power in 1994. That election was historic, marking the first time in four decades that Republicans controlled the House and which the GOP held until Democrats regained power in the 2006 elections.
Foley's defeat back home in Washington was momentous, too. He was the first House speaker to lose re-election in his congressional district since the Civil War.
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.
Leaving mark as legislator, diplomat
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.
Bush said in a statement Friday that Foley "represented the very best in public service -- and our political system. He always fought for his principles. He was always well-informed and well-reasoned, but Tom never got personal or burned bridges."
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 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 Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker.
Foley served as ambassador from 1997 to 2001, and returned to the nation's capital to resume his law practice.
"I will never forget the way he welcomed me to 'the other Washington,' and the incredible example he set as a tireless public servant for our state," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. "Tom touched the lives of everyone he encountered, whether it was a wheat farmer in Washington or a foreign dignitary in Japan."
As it became publicly known that Foley was ailing, his Washington state colleagues offered a "living tribute" to his life and achievements months ago 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."