By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - Former Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tom Foley, who spent 30 years in Congress before a conservative mood shift made him one of the few speakers ever defeated for re-election, died on Friday at age 84, his wife said.
Foley, the son of a judge and a native of Spokane, Washington, passed away at his home in Washington, D.C., shortly after 9 a.m. of complications from a stroke, his wife Heather Foley said in an email.
A former county prosecutor, Foley was first elected to Congress in 1964 from eastern Washington state as part of the Democratic landslide behind President Lyndon Johnson, ousting an 11-term Republican incumbent.
He worked his way up from chairman of the Agriculture Committee to Democratic whip, the No. 3 spot in the House, in 1981 and then to party leader in 1986. When U.S. Representative Jim Wright of Texas stepped down as speaker in 1989 in the midst of an ethics scandal, Foley was elevated to the top job - becoming the first speaker from west of the Rocky Mountains.
A moderate Democrat widely respected for his ability to work across the aisle with Republicans, his death comes days after Congress ended a 16-day partial government shutdown precipitated by Republican demands to delay or defund President Barack Obama's healthcare initiative.
In a statement, Obama praised Foley's "skill, dedication, and a deep commitment to improving the lives of those he was elected to serve" during his Congressional career, noting that his "straightforward approach helped him find common ground with members of both parties."
Former President George H. W. Bush praised Foley as "a good man and great public servant" who 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," Bush said in a statement. "We didn't agree on every issue, but on key issues we managed to put the good of the country ahead of politics."
Foley's district in his native Washington state had long been conservative but it kept sending him back. By the 1990s, however, the largely rural district had become increasingly conservative and many voters were upset with his support of gun control legislation.
Foley lost his congressional re-election campaign in 1994 during the so-called Republican Revolution led by then-U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich, who was elevated to the position of House speaker after his resurgent party won majorities in the House and the Senate.
In the mid-term election, Foley became the first speaker to be voted out of office since Republican William Pennington of New Jersey in 1860. His Republican opponent, political novice George Nethercutt, ran on a platform of limiting terms to three but when his third term expired he decided to stay in the House for four more years.
Though he held moderate to liberal views, opposing the death penalty and favoring abortion rights, Foley was highly regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike. Tributes poured in from both sides of the bitterly divided House on Friday.
Foley was "a natural leader. Forthright and warmhearted (who) endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle," Republican Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.
"That had a lot to do with his solid sense of fairness, which remains a model for any Speaker or representative ... With his passing, the House loses one of its most devoted servants and the country loses a great statesman," he added.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said Foley stood on the strength of his principles and "inspired a sense of purpose and civility that reflects the best of our democracy.
"You always delivered for those who counted on you, and not once in 30 years did your personal ambition outweigh the concerns of your constituents or stand in the way of smart policy," Pelosi said.
During his time in Congress, Foley had an enduring interest in foreign policy issues, stating his opposition to the Gulf War, and working for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland throughout his speakership.
After Foley left Congress, President Bill Clinton rewarded his long Democratic work by naming him ambassador to Japan, where he served from 1997 to 2001.
Before his political career, Foley was a lawyer who worked in the Spokane County prosecutor's office and for the Washington state attorney general. He went to Washington, D.C, as a U.S. Senate staffer. From there he ran for Congress in 1964.
Silver-haired and standing 6 feet and 3 inches tall, Foley had a ready smile and a smooth speaking style well suited to television.
As speaker, Foley was less partisan than his predecessor. But some Democrats griped they wanted a more forceful leader, especially after he was unsuccessful in getting Clinton's health care proposals through Congress.
"I think I am a little cursed with seeing the other point of view and trying to understand it," Foley once said.
Memorial services will be held in Washington, D.C. and later in Spokane, Washington.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Tim Dobbyn, Bernard Orr and Andrew Hay)