WASHINGTON -- Just as Newt Gingrich may be about to clinch the balanced budget deal that could secure his place in history as a great leader, the House speaker's personal reputation is taking a heavy beating.
As a result, he and his fellow Republicans could wind up paying the price in next year's national elections.
The past week opened amid a swirl of charges by the Federal Election Commission that GOPAC, a political action committee once run by Mr. Gingrich, skirted the nation's election laws.
On Wednesday, the House ethics committee voted unanimously declare Mr. Gingrich guilty of several violations of House rules and to hire a special counsel to examine a separate complaint related to GOPAC's operations.
It will likely take months -- and a much wider investigation -- before either matter is resolved. That puts it deep into a campaign season in which Democrats are citing Mr. Gingrich as the best reason to defeat Republicans.
Although many Republicans argue that the alleged transgressions are relatively minor, some fear that the suggestion of unethical conduct is eroding Mr. Gingrich's effectiveness as a party spokesman.
Grumbling from GOP ranks began after gaffes the speaker made last month -- first complaining about a perceived presidential snub, then blaming the welfare system for a grisly murder in Illinois. But it is growing louder as nervous lawmakers start to fear their leader is becoming a liability.
"We're losing the PR battle, and of course that relates to the Newt issue," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County.
"The Democrats have been trying to demonize him from Day One, Newt's added to the problem with some of his own comments and now you've got this ethics stuff, where the facts aren't that bad, but nobody's read the facts," he added. "It's all perception, the perception is bad, and that's bad politics."
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted last weekend tells the tale.
More than half of those surveyed -- 56 percent -- expressed negative feelings about the House speaker, compared with 39 percent in April. Forty-six percent say they disapprove of the GOP agenda in Congress -- a near reversal from a year ago when 55 percent said they preferred the Republicans over the Democrats to set policy for the country.
Even in his home state of Georgia, the speaker's negative rating has risen to 50 percent from 41 percent eight months ago, according to a poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
As the chief point man of a revolution aimed at reversing six decades of social activism by the federal government, Mr. Gingrich was prepared for personal attacks and is confident he can survive them, aides say.
"We're right on the verge of achieving what we've been working for all year," said Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley, referring to the negotiations with the White House that both sides say they hope will lead to a balanced budget in seven years.
"Newt is confident that when the public sees what we've accomplished, he'll be judged on the basis of those accomplishments."
Even if Mr. Gingrich's standing in the polls improves, the ethics probe of GOPAC's activities threaten to be a complication.
GOPAC, which Mr. Gingrich headed until last year, was designed to promote the election of state and local officials. In 1991, it expanded to become a federal PAC as well. Many of Mr. Gingrich's closest political advisers were employed by GOPAC.
Federal and state elections are conducted under different laws, particularly concerning contributions. Corporate contributions, for example, are acceptable in many state elections; however, they are forbidden in federal races.
The FEC charges in a lawsuit pending in U.S. district court that GOPAC began helping federal candidates, including Mr. Gingrich, before 1991, when it was legally permitted to do so.
Reams of documents filed in the case have provided a window into Mr. Gingrich's fund-raising activities, which have triggered allegations from Democrats that he did favors for businessmen who donated to GOPAC.
A court victory for the FEC could mean further release of documents detailing GOPAC activities, which are not now public records, and fines for GOPAC officials.
Potentially more serious for Mr. Gingrich is the prospect that the Ethics Committee's special counsel could expand his inquiry into GOPAC activities.
The special counsel is beginning with a narrow mission: to
examine whether Mr. Gingrich violated House rules by knowingly abusing the tax code in raising tax-deductible donations for a college class he taught in Georgia until early this year.
The class was financed by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group headed by Gingrich associates, some of whom were connected to GOPAC. Democrats said GOPAC was illegally financing the class using the tax-exempt organization as cover for promoting a political activity.
Specifically, critics assert that the class was a partisan effort by Mr. Gingrich to advance the GOP agenda. He says the course was strictly educational.
Republicans on the Ethics Committee, which has five members from each party, may try to block a move by Democrats to expand the probe to include a look at GOPAC. But the special counsel already has broad authority to follow any leads to determine whether Mr. Gingrich violated House rules, a committee member said.
No resolution of the inquiry is likely until well into next year.
At that point, the panel could exonerate Mr. Gingrich or find him in violation of the rules but take no action. That's what it did this week with charges that he allowed a political adviser to work out of his congressional office, and used floor speeches to promote sales of videotapes of his college course and a GOPAC meeting.
Or the committee could recommend penalties to the House, ranging from reprimand to censure to expulsion.
A result as harsh as expulsion seems unlikely at this point, based on the nature of the charges, said Roger Davidson, a congressional scholar at the University of Maryland. But he noted that former House Speaker Jim Wright "paid a very heavy price" -- resignation -- for ethics charges that seemed minor when first raised.