Democrats Wrestle With Leadership Vacuum

DEMOCRATS in the House of Representatives are struggling to forge new unity from their present leadership disarray. Republicans worry that Democrats may strike back at them by using Washington's newest political weapon: ethics.

And a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows what previous polls have indicated: Americans have equally low opinions of the ethics of both Republican and Democratic politicians. Thus there may be no political hay for Republican members of the House to reap from the troubles of their Democratic colleagues.

Rep. Thomas Foley (D) of Washington is virtually certain to become the Speaker of the House, the top Democratic leader. Currently in the No. 2 position as majority leader, the popular and respected Representative Foley will succeed Jim Wright (D) of Texas, when the latter steps down as Speaker. That may happen as early as Wednesday.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri is likely to succeed Mr. Foley as majority leader. Representative Gephardt, also popular with his fellow House Democrats, was an early leader in the 1988 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. His candidacy faded after he won the initial preliminary contest, the Iowa primary.

What opened the way for Gephardt to move into the majority leader's position was the unexpected decision late last week of Rep. Tony Coelho to step down from his position on the House Democratic leadership ladder. He had been the No. 3 leader, just behind Foley. Representative Coelho also said he would resign his House seat.

Coelho's resignation decision came in the wake of increasing questions about his personal finances, especially the circumstances of his purchase of a so-called junk bond.

Coelho originally rose to power in the House two years ago on the heels of his extraordinary success in obtaining corporate campaign contributions to help elect House Democratic candidates. Coelho raised the money from 1981 through 1986 when he headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

It is not now clear who is likely to follow Coelho in the No. 3 Democratic job as majority whip. Candidates are believed to include Rep. William H. Gray III (D) of Pennsylvania and Rep. David E. Bonior (D) of Michigan.

What unlocked the floodgates of ethics charges in the House were accusations against Speaker Wright by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. The charges led directly to the Texan's downfall.

Representative Gingrich and other Republicans have strongly denied that these charges were made in retaliation for the Democratic-led effort which eventually succeeded in preventing Republican former Sen. John Tower of Texas from gaining Senate confirmation as the secretary of defense.

Some Republicans are concerned that Democrats, in retaliation for the pressure that lead to the Wright and Coelho resignations, may increase partisan accusations against Republicans and especially Gingrich, as minority whip and the No. 2 Republican leader in the House. Democrats already have raised questions about the financial arrangement through which several backers advanced money for the publication of a novel by Gingrich.

Regardless of individual cases, Washington observers of Congress say that ethics and charges of ethics violations have long been used as political weapons. But it is doubtful whether Republicans could win many votes by arguing that Democrats are less ethical than Republicans.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll reported late last week appears to confirm this. Seventy-nine percent of people in the poll questioned said there isn't much difference between the parties in ethical matters.

According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of the people questioned rated the ethics of members of Congress and politicians in general as not good and three-fourths say most members of Congress will lie if they think the truth will hurt them.

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