WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee investigation of Speaker Newt Gingrich entered its final, make-or-break phase Thursday as the panel's special counsel worked to meet a midnight deadline for filing his report and the panel prepared for nationally televised public hearings on how to punish Gingrich.
Those hearings, which are expected to begin this afternoon, will offer the first detailed public discussion of the case. But it will be far more truncated than originally expected, leaving Gingrich's Democratic critics fuming that Republicans have succeeded in keeping a lid on public exposure of Gingrich's misdeeds.
"This is a political effort on the part of the Republican leadership to minimize the political damage to the speaker," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento). "They want to get this behind them and move on."
After committee special counsel James M. Cole files his report, it will be distributed to committee members for their approval. Then the report will be sent by overnight mail to other members of the House, who are scattered around the country, and released to the public.
Gingrich critics have been counting on the report and public hearings to generate increased pressure on the House to punish Gingrich harshly for violating House rules in connection with a college course that he once taught with financial support from a nonprofit foundation.
A four-person investigative subcommittee of the Ethics Committee has found--and Gingrich has admitted--that he violated House rules by providing false information about the connection between the course and his political empire and failing to ensure that he complied with tax laws that bar using contributions from tax-exempt foundations for political purposes.
As he prepared to return to Washington on Thursday from his home in Georgia, Gingrich echoed comments made Wednesday by President Clinton, who suggested that lawmakers have been spending too much time and energy on partisan bickering over ethics.
"I think people realize ethics are important," Gingrich told Cable News Network. "But it has to be seen as part of a larger system. It can't devour everything else."
Much is at stake for both sides in the disclosures of the next few days, when the veil of secrecy will be pulled for the first time from the details of Cole's work. His report is expected to run hundreds of pages. Late Thursday, installments of the report were being hand-delivered to members of the committee. Asked in the early evening if he would make his midnight deadline, a weary Cole told reporters: "Gonna try."
Although details of the committee's schedule were still being worked out late Thursday, sources said that the panel likely would meet in closed session today to receive the report formally and authorize its release. It would then conduct a public meeting, perhaps as early as this afternoon and possibly running into Saturday. But sources said that a Sunday meeting is not expected.
Gingrich allies are hoping that the report and hearings will include no major revelations of additional wrongdoing. Democratic critics of Gingrich are hoping that Cole will present a more damning portrait of Gingrich's misdeeds than were included in the 22-page summary released in December by the committee's investigative subcommittee.
That statement was silent on the question of whether Gingrich deliberately misled the committee or skirted tax law. Gingrich has insisted that any violations were not intentional.
Either way, the public will see far less of Cole and the committee than had been envisioned, and the political dynamics heading into the hearings are far more favorable to Gingrich than expected a week ago.
That shift is testimony, in part, to how successfully Republicans have played hardball for the last week, as they managed to curtail the length of the hearings and stand firm on their insistence that the matter come to a House vote Jan. 21.
The panel initially planned five or more days of public hearings, to be televised nationally. But after Democrats complained that the schedule called for voting on the punishment before Cole's report was available, Ethics Committee Chairwoman Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) unilaterally postponed the hearings.
She said that she ordered the change to give Cole more time to prepare the report. Democrats said that it was an obvious political ploy to cut back on damaging publicity, but they were powerless to change the ruling.
Democrats were further thrown on the defensive by accusations that Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee, had given reporters a secret tape-recording of a telephone conference call between Gingrich and his GOP lieutenants.
Clearly infuriated that they seem to have lost any political advantage they had, Democrats fumed. "It's humiliating," said one Democratic strategist. "We have no leverage."