WASHINGTON -- Susan Molinari rocketed to the top ranks of Congress as part of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolutionary band, became her party's symbol of empowered womanhood and shared her life with a handsome young husband and a beloved baby girl.
Yesterday, she went looking for a new realm to conquer. The five-term representative from Staten Island, the highest-ranking woman in the House, plans to resign in August to co-anchor a new two-hour CBS News show on Saturday morning to compete with NBC's "Today" show.
"This where I want to be and where I see my future," Molinari told a New York news conference.
The 39-year-old did not explain directly why she had decided to resign less than seven months after she was re-elected to Congress. But her decision, which caught official Washington by surprise, will mean more money and more time with her husband -- also a rising Republican star in the House -- and their 1-year-old daughter.
And it will mean a chance to pursue a longtime dream of Molinari's: to work in television.
She described her vision for the new program as "60 Minutes meets Rosie O'Donnell," suggesting a blend of investigative journalism and celebrity interviews. But Molinari declined to rule out a future run for office. Friends note that her political prospects will actually be enhanced by her visibility on television.
"Never say never," the congresswoman said when pressed on her political ambitions.
As an articulate spokeswoman for the Republican cause, Molinari frequently volunteered to appear on national news programs. Known for her sassy demeanor and crisp speaking style, she was introduced to a national audience last summer when she delivered the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention. Cameras often shifted to her husband, Rep. Bill Paxon, who sat with their daughter, Ruby Susan.
Molinari's convention appearance apparently caught the attention of Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, who approached her in January about joining the network. The two have been negotiating since.
"It was my idea," said Heyward, who brushed off suggestions from reporters that he was hiring an "amateur" for his news program.
"We are creating a whole new program," he said. "It is wrong to be bound by the traditional."
Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN, told the Chicago Tribune that Molinari had approached CNN last year to ask whether they were interested in hiring her. And Molinari's father said she had recently considered several possible new jobs, inside and outside the news media.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich described Molinari's decision as a "big surprise." As vice chairman of the Republican conference, Molinari ranks behind Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay and John A. Boehner, the Republican conference chairman. None seems ready to vacate his post. Her prospects for advancement have also been constricted by her voting record, which includes stands unpopular with conservatives, such as those in favor of abortion rights and gun control.
"She's very serious about this," former Rep. Guy V. Molinari said of his daughter. "She's always wanted to be in television. She knows it's very competitive, and she'll have to prove herself."
Her colleagues were quick to congratulate her on what they considered a shrewd career move.
"I was flabbergasted at first, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made," said Rep. Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican who called herself Molinari's closest House friend. "I came to the House when my daughter was 2. I know how hard that is. Between her and Bill, they really had three homes to maintain."
Said Republican Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida: "I think it's great for women to show we have choices, and it's going to be great to have a Republican woman on CBS for two hours every Saturday."
Pub Date: 5/29/97