Where Dispute Over Gingrich Goes From Here

Democrats hope to prolong the ethics probe, while Republicans sense that the whole episode could end up unifying them

The partisan brawling over Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics has reached the bare-knuckles stage.

Democrats hope to prolong the process of deciding Mr. Gingrich's punishment for his admitted ethics violations. They favor public hearings that they hope will unearth new, damaging information against the Speaker. At the very least, they intend to inflict as much public-relations damage to him as possible, hoping to increase pressure on House Republicans to desert their leader and vote for a punishment that would require him to step down.

The Democrats view the Republican leadership as engaged in a campaign to cover up the issue, prevent members from receiving information about Gingrich, and sweep the matter under the rug.

Almost all Republicans, on the other hand, appear convinced that the Democrats are pursuing raw politics, not an ethics process. Convinced that the Speaker has done nothing seriously wrong, they accuse the minority party of orchestrating delays to prevent the ethics committee from resolving the matter before the Jan. 7 election of the Speaker.

Since that time, they believe, the Democrats have tried to drag out the ethics process to smear Gingrich. They see the Democrats trying to undermine the GOP legislative program.

While the Democrats clearly hope to split the Republicans over the issue, they may only end up unifying them. A key question is whether the public is as exercised about the dispute as are House Democrats. National polls released last week showed a majority of the public favoring that Gingrich be replaced as Speaker. He also received low marks for honesty and character, lower than President Clinton, who faces his own ethical problems.

Yet some GOP congressmen say they received no outpouring of letters and phone calls from constituents prior to the vote for Speaker. "We got about 40 to 50 calls and letters. That's about normal on any issue," said Fred Upton of Michigan, a leading GOP moderate. In all votes on the House floor thus far pertaining to the Gingrich's election or the ethics timetable, Republicans have held their majority together to carry the day.

The struggle over Gingrich is so intense that the ethics committee has had trouble even agreeing on where to go with the investigation from here. After a 14-hour meeting that went into Thursday morning, committee members decided to hold week-long public hearings starting today.

Those hearings were to culminate in a recommendation and the delivery of information about the case to members this week, with a vote in the full House Jan. 21 and the formal submission of special counsel James Cole's final report Feb. 4.

By that afternoon, however, committee Democrats were publicly complaining that this would force House members to vote before they read the final report. Taking the Democrats at their word, ethics committee chairman Nancy Johnson (R) of Connecticut decided to reverse the order, instructing Mr. Cole to complete his final report by Jan. 16 for circulation to all House members, followed by a "public hearing" before Jan. 21. Committee Democrats objected to this just as loudly.

Gingrich admitted to an investigating subcommittee in December that he failed to obtain proper legal advice on whether a college course he taught was funded in accordance with tax laws and that he supplied incorrect information to the subcommittee about the relationship of his political action committee, GOPAC, to the course. Gingrich says he didn't intend to mislead the committee.

The conflict was further stoked Friday by The New York Times's publication of the transcript of a conference call among House GOP leaders the day the subcommittee announced its findings. The call was intercepted and taped by "people in Florida who were unsympathetic to Mr. Gingrich" and who picked the call up from a cellular phone on their police scanner. An unnamed Democratic congressman gave the Times the transcript.

The Times report implied that the discussion, held before the findings were announced, violated Gingrich's agreement with the investigating subcommittee not to orchestrate a Republican counterattack against it. But Gingrich's office said that agreement allowed the Speaker to brief the GOP leadership and that the leaders could respond as they thought appropriate.

House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde Friday wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno demanding an investigation into the interception of the telephone call. Intercepting and taping of telephone calls by unauthorized third parties is a violation of federal law.

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