WASHINGTON -- As he tries to focus attention on his "Contract with America," House Speaker Newt Gingrich is finding the spotlight inexorably fixed on his contract with the HarperCollins publishing house for a lucrative book deal.
Dominating his morning news conference yesterday, igniting fireworks on the House floor Wednesday, and spiraling out this week to touch off partisan feuds and tirades, the book deal is clouding what Mr. Gingrich hoped would be the triumphant opening weeks of his reign.
It has become such a distraction that this week even a few Republicans suggested that the new speaker give up or modify the book deal.
An angry Mr. Gingrich yesterday accused the Democrats of seizing on the issue in an effort to destroy him.
"I think a strategy based on the personal destruction of somebody is pretty amazing if it's a genuine strategy," he said at the news conference. "Not looking at issues, not looking at facts but having a strategy of personal destruction I find pretty sobering in America."
Calling the book deal a "detail" in the Democratic attack on him, the speaker suggested that his critics, motivated by "personal venom," were seeking revenge for having lost control of Congress.
"There is a small group of people so bitter about losing control of the House that they have decided that any device which destroys me is legitimate," said Mr. Gingrich, whose own hard-ball tactics brought down House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 on ethics charges that also involved a book deal and more recently helped the GOP win back the House.
Mr. Gingrich said he would not change or drop the book deal in light of the unrelenting criticism, insisting that if he did, Democrats would merely find a new avenue of attack. "I am going to write a book," he said. "I think I have a right to write a book."
Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, declared as "obviously not true" the speaker's claim that Democrats were plotting his destruction.
Mr. Gephardt said he would let the House Ethics Committee decide whether the matter warranted the appointment of an outside counsel, as the No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, has proposed.
Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Gingrich met yesterday to discuss the appointment of members to the House Ethics Committee. That task presents the speaker, who has the authority to name members to the committee, with a dilemma because the panel is reviewing questions about Mr. Gingrich's college course and could take up the book deal as well.
Mr. Gingrich tried to quell the uproar over his book contract last month, when he announced that he would forgo a $4.5 million advance offered him by HarperCollins to write one book and compile another. Instead, he said, he would take a $1 advance and royalties from the sales.
Democrats insist that, along with using his position to cash in, Mr. Gingrich has a conflict of interest because the publishing house from which the speaker stands to make millions of dollars is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate who has business before Congress and federal regulators.
It was discovered earlier this month that while his agent was negotiating a contract with HarperCollins, Mr. Gingrich met on Capitol Hill with Mr. Murdoch.
Mr. Gingrich insists that Mr. Murdoch was merely paying him a "courtesy call" that had nothing to do with the book deal or with Mr. Murdoch's interest in a telecommunications bill before Congress. "I don't recollect any discussion at all about legislation," the House speaker said.
In a newspaper column that appeared yesterday, Robert D. Novak, a conservative sympathetic to Mr. Gingrich, said the controversy "has reached the point where it is distracting the speaker from his formidable task of enacting the Republican agenda."
Mr. Novak said "more and more" Republicans are suggesting that Mr. Gingrich cut off the deal.
Another Gingrich ally, Republican strategist William Kristol, said the speaker should give up the deal because the issue has diverted attention away from the Republican agenda.
Democrats began a series of assaults on the book deal Wednesday with a speech by Rep. Carrie Meek, a Florida Democrat, who asked, "Exactly who does this speaker really work for? . . . Is it the American people or his New York publishing house?"
Rep. Robert S. Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican and Gingrich ally, said Ms. Meek's comments were out of order and asked that they be stricken from the record. Democrats argued that the Republicans were trying to prevent free speech. After a series of votes along party lines, Ms. Meek's words were deleted.