Ethics Storm Not Likely To Sink House Speaker

Punishment is still pending, but GOP rallies behind Gingrich

Despite his ethics travails, House Speaker Newt Gingrich looks set for reelection next Tuesday. But his problems are likely to be a focus of bitter wrangling in the House of Representatives for at least another three weeks.

As of yesterday, the highly publicized defection of one House Republican, Michael Forbes of New York, was the sole crack in the dike of GOP support for Mr. Gingrich. No other Republicans have joined Mr. Forbes, and vote-counters in the press find only eight to 13 others who might be wavering. Twenty Republicans would have to refuse to vote for Gingrich in the scheduled Jan. 7 Speaker election to cost him the job. Because that would result in the election of Democrat Richard Gephardt of Missouri as Speaker of the GOP-controlled body, it at present appears highly unlikely.

A subcommittee of the House ethics panel is expected to recommend a mild form of censure, which would allow Gingrich to continue as Speaker. The Georgia Republican admitted Dec. 21 to supplying misleading information to an investigatory subcommittee and to failing to seek adequate legal advice on whether funding by non- profit organizations of a college course he taught violated those organizations' tax-exempt status. Under Internal Revenue Service rules, tax-exempt organizations are not to engage in political activity. Gingrich was officially charged with violating House Rule 43 (1), failing "to conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives."

Eager to deflect attention from ethical and legal problems at the White House and the Democratic National Committee, Democrats who earlier called for a quick resolution to the Gingrich matter now talk about the need for a thorough airing of the issues before a vote is taken on punishment. The Speaker could still lose his post if the House votes to censure him.

More likely, however, is a reprimand, a milder measure that would allow Gingrich to keep the speakership. According to the Associated Press, an ethics panel subcommittee will recommend this option. Republican leaders had earlier hoped for a quick vote on a reprimand without committee hearings before the House reconvenes Jan. 7, but Democrats on the ethics committee forced a slowdown.

In a New Year's Eve compromise, the committee, chaired by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) of Connecticut, agreed to meet Wednesday, the day after the vote for Speaker, to take up the matter. Its recommendation on punishment should reach the House floor by Jan. 17, with a vote by the full House to take place by Jan. 21.

In the interim, the committee is expected to hold a public hearing, at which investigating counsel James Cole and Gingrich's lawyer will make statements. At that time, Democrats on the full committee will have their first opportunity to question Mr. Cole about his findings in the case.

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders have engaged in a full-court press to prevent further defections. They have deluged members with faxes and phone calls explaining the charges and Gingrich's admissions, and set up a telephone hot line to answer questions from caucus members.

Gingrich's cause got a boost Tuesday when the two GOP members of the ethics investigatory subcommittee, the only body that has reviewed all the documents in the case, released a "Dear Colleagues" letter backing the Speaker.

"We know of no reason now, nor do we foresee any in the normal course of events in the future, why Newt Gingrich would be ineligible to serve as Speaker," said Reps. Porter Goss of Florida and Steve Schiff of New Mexico.

The letter drew criticism from Rep. Julian Dixon (D) of California, who spent six years as ethics committee chairman beginning in '89. "I'm unaware of a member of the ethics committee heretofore communicating to the leadership of either party their predisposition to vote a certain way on a sanction," he told the Associated Press. "It's my recollection during my tenure that members were exceptionally cautious on making public utterances on issues pending before them."

The debate over Gingrich has grown increasingly bitter and partisan. Democrats, led by House minority whip David Bonior of Michigan, have sought to make the most of the Speaker's troubles. Mr. Bonior told CNN earlier this week, "What you have here is clearly activity on behalf of Mr. Gingrich and GOPAC over a period of seven years through multiple tax-exempt organizations, to defraud the taxpayers of the country and to cheat children and educational opportunities for kids." GOPAC is a political action committee Gingrich organized to help the GOP take control of the House.

"The way the Democrats have attempted to describe the charges is incorrect," responds Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a moderate who has been much watched for clues as to how solid Gingrich's support is. "That's life, and Newt's got to deal with that."

The subcommittee, he says, made no finding about whether the nonprofits involved - one of which was a fund originally set up to foster educational opportunity in inner cities, but which had no money of its own at the time Gingrich's course was funded - violated their tax-exempt status.

"Newt is a change agent, and a change agent is never popular," Mr. Shays says. "What we're seeing here is an effort to go after the messenger because they couldn't get the message."

Shays says he will vote for Gingrich on Tuesday, and expects that the Speaker will be reelected. "Should anyone who's looked at the facts feel comfortable voting for Newt? Absolutely," he says.

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