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Gingrich Inquiry Adds New Anxiety for Republicans

Congress: GOP colleagues are standing by the House speaker, but analysts say that could change if ethics probe turns up violations.


WASHINGTON — The expanding ethics investigation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is creating new cause for anxiety within Republican ranks about the future of the man who has served as both the field marshal of their political wars and the icon of their conservative vision.

Gingrich's GOP colleagues now are rallying around the embattled speaker, despite Thursday's decision by the House Ethics Committee to expand the scope of its 20-month inquiry focusing on his past relationships with tax-exempt organizations.

"I don't see there's any move afoot to challenge him as speaker," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), referring to suggestions by Democrats that Gingrich relinquish the speaker's reins.

That could change, however, if the ethics panel eventually concludes that Gingrich violated House rules or the law. And if it is determined that he lied to the committee, political analysts and some colleagues said, his hold on the speakership would be at risk.

"If he's found to have misled the committee, I think it is fatal to him," said Ronald M. Peters Jr., author of a book on the speakership and director of the Carl Albert Center, a public policy research facility at the University of Oklahoma.

"If it turns out he deceived the panel, that would cause him internal problems," acknowledged Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). "I don't think you'll find anyone covering for him in this Congress."

Gingrich has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, and his spokesman characterized Democratic suggestions that he step down as speaker as "absurd."

The expanding Gingrich inquiry adds to the problems of a party whose presidential candidate, Bob Dole, seems hopelessly behind in the polls. But even if the investigation eventually produces bad news, it probably would not happen until after Gingrich and his fellow Republicans stand for reelection in November.

At issue is the Ethics Committee's investigation of allegations that Gingrich may have violated tax laws when he taught a college course from 1993 to 1995 with support from the nonprofit Progress and Freedom Foundation.

Last January, the committee hired special counsel James M. Cole to investigate whether the course's content was so partisan that it could not properly be financed with tax-exempt contributions. The panel's investigative subcommittee, which has equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, received a report from Cole in August. On Thursday, it voted unanimously to expand the investigation to include questions about whether Gingrich provided the committee with "accurate, reliable and complete information" concerning the college course.

That decision raised the political stakes for Gingrich enormously. For one thing, the panel's decision for the first time lifts the case out of the realm of arcane tax law into the realm of common-sense right and wrong: Did he or didn't he mislead the committee?

Democratic political operatives, who have been encouraging candidates to try to link Republican incumbents to the controversial speaker, see pay dirt in that simple new issue.


"This boils it down to one sentence for candidates," said Tricia Primrose, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "This is not a question of whether or not voters understand all the intricacies of federal law. This is whether or not the speaker of the House told the truth."

The committee's decision also confronts Gingrich for the first time with ethics questions raised by a bipartisan panel, not just partisans like House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.). That seems to undercut efforts by Gingrich and other Republicans to brush off the entire ethics case as a political vendetta.

"It has to make it more difficult for him to simply say it's driven totally by partisanship," said Eddie Mahe, a Republican political consultant close to Gingrich. "It cannot be, by any interpretation, good."

The last time a speaker of the House came under this kind of scrutiny was largely the result of Gingrich's own efforts. It was Gingrich who initiated Ethics Committee charges against former Democratic Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. The complaint ultimately led to Wright's resignation from Congress in 1989.

The charges against Wright centered on allegations that he improperly enriched himself through a book deal that paid him unusually high royalties, as well as other schemes. He did not resign until the ethics investigation was at a more advanced stage than the preliminary Gingrich investigation, which has still reached no conclusion about his conduct. In Wright's case, the panel found "reason to believe" that Wright had violated House rules and it issued the congressional equivalent of an indictment.

The University of Oklahoma's Peters said the key to Wright's downfall was not the criticism mounted by Gingrich and other Republicans. Rather, he said, Wright came under intense pressure to step down because his fellow Democrats turned against him.

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