THE House Ethics Committee is set to begin considering Feb. 15 a number of complaints against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the first Republican to hold that office in 40 years, over a controversial two-book deal and other financial dealings.
The probe marks the first time since 1989 that a House Speaker has been brought under investigation by the panel, now formally known as the Standards of Official Conduct Committee. Ironically, the earlier proceedings were largely the result of a campaign waged by Mr. Gingrich against then-Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas, also over a book deal.
Unless significant new details come to light, few analysts expect the ethics probe to cause significant long-term damage to the Speaker, though it could fray the edges of his image in the near-term. His public-approval ratings have been low.
''The Democrats, as the opposition, should keep the heat on,'' says Stephen Hess, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But the allegations ''tend to be in the sour-grapes category.''
The complaints against Mr. Gingrich (R) of Georgia continue to cause partisan sparring on the floor of the House, and a growing number of public advocacy groups have joined the chorus from the outside.
Gingrich denies any wrongdoing and characterizes the complaints against him as nothing more than a witch hunt by Democrats embittered over losing the House of Representatives in last November's midterm elections.
''I've been told by a member of the House that there are like 30 or 40 ethics charges that are going to come out like Chinese water torture,'' the Speaker told reporters at a news conference last week. ''You know, if I go to an [Atlanta] Braves game, it's probably a sign of my favoritism for Ted Turner.''
In a compromise with minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, Gingrich agreed to hold over the remaining membership of the Ethics Committee from the previous Congress to hear the complaints against him, although the panel will now be chaired by Republican Nancy Johnson of Connecticut. The 10 seats are equally divided between the parties.
The panel may hear as many as three complaints against Gingrich:
*First, former Rep. Ben Jones (D) of Georgia, Gingrich's reelection opponent, charged prior to the November elections that Gingrich violated House rules and tax laws by using his congressional staff, his political action committee GOPAC, and his affiliate, the tax-exempt Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), to support a college course he teaches.
Last month, the No. 2 ranking House Democrat, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, amended the Jones complaint to include Gingrich's books deal with HarperCollins, a publishing house owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Bonior also added allegations that the Speaker solicited business leaders to provide staff for congressional activities and to buy PFF videotapes. Gingrich helped establish this foundation.
Gingrich originally accepted a $4.5 million advance from the publisher at a time when Congress is considering a new telecommunications law that Murdoch, as owner of Fox TV network, has an interest in.
Murdoch met with Gingrich in the congressman's office shortly after the midterm election and a month before the original books deal, which Gingrich later canceled, was announced. Although the Speaker has agreed to give up the advance, Democrats say he could still promote the books on Gingrich's cable TV show.
*Second, Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado was preparing a complaint against an offer by Jones Intercable, Inc., a Colorado cable company, to air Gingrich's college course for free. Ms. Schroeder and fellow Democrats charge the offer was an illegal gift worth about $200,000, well in excess of the House limit on the value of gifts, at a time when the cable industry has major interests pending in Congress.
*Third, Ralph Nader's Congressional Accountability Project is seeking to file a third complaint against Gingrich, charging that the Speaker has employed political consultant Joe Gaylord with private funds for official business. House rules prohibit the use of outside resources in the conduct of congressional activities.
Recalling the campaign that Gingrich waged against Speaker Wright in 1989, Democrats are pushing for an independent investigation, a measure the Ethics Committee adopted against the Texas Democrat. Wright was forced to resign over a book deal in which he received an unusually high royalty, and nearly all the books were bought in bulk by trade associations.