WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich is back - at least rhetorically.
Near the end of a congressional session in which he has taken a remarkably low profile, the embattled House Speaker came out swinging yesterday, accusing the White House, Democrats, and labor unions of "illegality and illegitimacy" during the 1996 elections.
"We need honest, fair elections," Mr. Gingrich told reporters at a Monitor breakfast. "We've now had proof of sufficient number of noncitizens voting that it may well have affected at least one election for Congress" - presumably the California race between incumbent Robert Dornan (R) and declared victor Loretta Sanchez (D). Other seats are "tainted," he said.
Gingrich also said a campaign-finance bill along the lines of the McCain-Feingold approach is the "wrong model" and would not pass the House. Like McCain-Feingold, he would ban on so-called soft money - the unlimited donations made to political parties. But unlike the proposed legislation, Gingrich would lift the $1,000 contributor limit on "hard money" donations made to individual candidates, and would tighten current disclosure requirements. He also backed measures to ensure that all voters are citizens and to prevent unions from spending members' dues on political activities without their written permission.
Whether this marks a tougher GOP attitude towards President Clinton now that a budget deal has been completed remains to be seen. But it hints at possible new revelations of wrongdoing uncovered in House investigations of both the Dornan-Sanchez race and the 1996 campaign. House hearings on campaign financing have yet to get under way. A more-narrow Senate investigation has so far uncovered no "smoking gun," although it has revealed embarrassing behavior by White House officials.
Gingrich's new aggressiveness follows a year of significant ups and downs for the Speaker, in which his position appeared in jeopardy more than once. Tarred with an ethics-committee reprimand, he was barely reelected at the opening of the 105th Congress.
That was followed by constant rumors of coup attempts fostered by a group of House sophomores dissatisfied with the leadership's willingness to negotiate with Mr. Clinton on budget and tax issues. It resulted in a bungled attempt to oust him.
The Speaker said he has been active in developing new GOP strategies for the future of the country. Up next on his agenda: "bold" reforms of the tax code, parental choice and other education reforms, and an end to affirmative-action quotas.
After that, he said, would come reform of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security and a "very profound dialogue about what are the obligations of citizens to the society and of society to citizens as it relates to some of the most basic of our national social programs."
Gingrich said the campaign-finance bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin would impose on congressional races a system that failed in the last presidential race.
"I think we do not yet have a clue how big and how thorough the illegality and illegitimacy of the '96 election was," he said.
"Every week there's a new story ... and a new set of players unfolding. This latest - the Teamsters to the AFL-CIO to their Vote '96 [campaign] to the [Democratic National Committee] to the White House - just put that up on a chart and look at it for a while." He called for Teamsters President Ron Carey to step down.
"I don't know how you deal with it," he said. "If there are no consequences, why would any future presidential campaign worry about the law?"
Gingrich listed his own priorities for dealing with projected future budget surpluses: first, paying off part of the national debt each year; second, a modest annual tax cut; and third, investing more in science, research, and infrastructure.
He predicted a GOP gain of 15 to 35 House seats in the 1998 election. Some independent observers agree that Republicans have an edge, especially if the economy remains healthy, which always favors incumbents.
The sixth year a party holds the White House, it tends to do poorly in congressional races, which also favors the GOP. Democratic pollster Peter Hart, however, believes the Democrats hold an advantage with the public on social issues that could propel them back into the House majority.
Gingrich said he has no plans to run for president in 2000. But he added, "No one from Georgia makes Shermanesque statements."