WASHINGTON -- Having easily squelched a mini-revolt, Newt Gingrich was the unanimous choice of his Republican colleagues yesterday to serve a second term as speaker of the House.
Gingrich's conciliatory acceptance speech was delivered to a humbler group of House Republicans, and it reflected how tarnished their leader's image has become since the heady days of the self-styled "Gingrich revolution" that ushered him into power in 1994.
Dubbing the new session the "Implementation Congress," Gingrich called for an incremental, bipartisan approach to enacting the goals that he says Republicans share with President Clinton: balancing the budget, reducing the size of government, lowering taxes and replacing the welfare system with work.
"We find ourselves here with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, and we have an absolute moral obligation to make this system work," the 53-year-old Gingrich told his newly elected colleagues, who met to organize and choose their leaders for next year.
The speaker made no reference to the ethics investigation that prompted a handful of House Republicans to suggest publicly that he step aside until the charges against him are resolved. But Gingrich acknowledged that he had committed political and public relations gaffes that set him up as an easy target for critics.
"The last Congress was, legitimately, the 'Confrontation Congress,' " Gingrich said, referring to the fervor with
which he and the first House Republican majority in 40 years boldly tried to reverse decades of Democratic social policy, only to be demonized, with some success, by President Clinton and the Democrats.
"I made a few big errors. I was both the speaker of the House and our leading advocate, and some days I didn't do it very well."
During the election campaign, Republican candidates for Congress were bombarded by ads from Democrats in which Gingrich was held up as a symbol of Republican budget-cutting "extremism" that had led to two partial shutdowns of the government.
Republicans retained a House majority of 22 seats, but lost eight seats to Democrats. After two years of driving the congressional agenda, House Republicans now will probably take a back seat to Republicans in the Senate, who tightened their control of that body.
Yesterday's meeting in an ornate House caucus room projected none of the euphoria of the Republicans who met two years ago, just after their large freshman class had led them to a stunning victory. An attempt yesterday to re-create the joyous chants of "Newt, Newt, Newt, Newt!" that dominated those early meetings fell flat.
"I think we've been very sobered by the campaign," said Rep. Rick A. Lazio of New York. "To get anything done, we're going to have to forge some compromises, and that won't be easy."
Still, Gingrich will be the first Republican speaker elected to consecutive terms since the 1920s.
For Gingrich, yesterday's occasion was "bittersweet," in his words, because his adoptive father, Robert Gingrich, died early yesterday of lung cancer. The speaker said he felt colleagues had rallied around him like a family.
A report due for release next month by the independent counsel investigating ethics charges against Gingrich could affect his formal election as speaker when the new Congress convenes Jan. 7. The report is expected to address whether Gingrich misused a tax-exempt foundation for political purposes and whether he disclosed inaccurate information about a college course he taught.
But a drive to pressure Gingrich to step aside voluntarily until he is cleared of any ethics violations fizzled.
"There was really nobody else to take his place, and I like the
guy," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, who spoke for many Republicans.
Rep. Peter T. King of New York proposed shortly after the election that Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a veteran lawmaker, be named to take Gingrich's place as speaker until the ethics matter is resolved. King said his concern was not that Gingrich might be guilty of the alleged offenses, but that the inquiry was worsening a negative image of the speaker that is harmful to the Republican Party.
King's proposal was endorsed by some conservative columnists and by Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma.
But Hyde said he did not want his name put forward, and no other candidates emerged. Meanwhile, Gingrich aides worked to solidify his support, prompting other members of his leadership team to close ranks around him.
The No. 2 House leader, Dick Armey of Texas, who was chosen yesterday to remain as majority leader, was among those who defended Gingrich, saying he was powerful because of the "weight and the strength of his ideas."
Gingrich has decided to yield some of that power to committee chairmen. Ending a long tradition under which Democratic chairmen had ruled their committees like feudal barons, Gingrich two years ago made the Republican chairmen functionaries of decisions actually made by the Republican leadership.
Legislation to overhaul the Medicare and Medicaid programs, for example, was written in the speaker's office, rather than in the committees with expertise in those areas.
In the next Congress, Gingrich has promised to allow the chairmen to assume a stronger role in crafting policy and legislation.
Recognizing the greater need for compromise among Republicans, Gingrich also promised moderates more influence in decision-making -- though still "not enough," said one of them, Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, who often bucked the speaker in the last session.
Morella warned that she and other moderates would defect to the Democrats on some issues if their concerns were not addressed. "I can imagine all kinds of coalitions being formed," she said.
Pub Date: 11/21/96